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From farm to family: Growers donate fresh bounty to help those in need

Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine

Many people simply don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. California family farmers are helping to change that.




Justin, Leland, Grant, Jon and Erin Parnagian, above, and Dan Van Groningen, below, are among the approximately 50 California farmers who donate fresh produce.

As families and individuals throughout the state struggle to make ends meet, California farmers are doing what they can to ensure that all people have food on the table—and not just canned and dry staples, but a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well.

Each year, more than 50 growers and packers set aside thousands of pounds of fresh produce for hungry people through the Farm to Family program, administered by the California Association of Food Banks. Fowler Packing Co. and Van Groningen and Sons Inc. are two of these dedicated donors.

Dan Van Groningen, who grows, packs and ships a diverse selection of crops enjoyed by food bank recipients in urban and rural communities, has been donating watermelons, squash, sweet corn and pumpkins to the Farm to Family program since its official inception in 2005. Prior to that, his company donated to local food banks.

“This is a good cause. It is worth the effort and we know that it is going to those who really need it,” said Van Groningen, who operates Van Groningen and Sons Inc. in San Joaquin County.


Donated fresh produce benefits families like Cynthia Pabalate and her children Christian, Taylor Anne and Christopher.

Farm to Family connects California growers and packers like Van Groningen with the state’s established food bank network. These members of agriculture donate, or sell at a significantly reduced rate, fruits and vegetables that cosmetically are not quite up to retail standards. The produce is then trucked to 44 food banks statewide, where volunteers sort and distribute it to about 5,000 non-profit agencies that assist more than 2 million hungry people each year.

To the delight of many food banks, not all of Van Groningen’s harvest makes the grade for his supermarket customers and is, instead, placed in bins for the food banks to pick up.


Gary Maxworthy, left, who helped develop the Farm to Family program, and Sue Sigler of the California Association of Food Banks pose at the San Francisco Food Bank’s warehouse.

“In the case of watermelons, special bins are set up for scarred or misshaped melons, which are edible but don’t look cosmetically good in the stores,” Van Groningen said. “This past summer, two to four truckloads of watermelons a week were going to the food banks. The stuff just gets dumped otherwise. It is a good program.”

Food insecurity—defined as a lack of access to enough food because of a lack of financial resources—is a widespread problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2007 that 36.2 million people lived in households considered to be food insecure. On average, 10.2 percent of Californians experienced food insecurity between 2005 and 2007.

“There are many communities where people simply don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said California Association of Food Banks Executive Director Sue Sigler. “There might not be a full-service grocery store in their neighborhood. We refer to those places as food deserts, where it is very difficult for people to access nutritious food on a regular basis.”

Last year, Farm to Family contributors provided food banks with 63.4 million pounds of fresh produce. That figure is expected to hit 80 million pounds this year. When the program began in 2005, 10 million pounds were collected.

Gary Maxworthy, who helped develop the Farm to Family program and is a part-time employee of the San Francisco Food Bank, is pleased with the program’s success.


Volunteers repackage donations at the San Francisco Food Bank.

“Now with the Farm to Family program, we’ve got this incredible resource,” Maxworthy said. “This program has enabled most food banks to get a guaranteed source of food and delivery of food—fresh produce in this case—every single week.”

In 2008, the San Francisco Food Bank distributed 33 million pounds of food, with more than half of that amount being fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of this produce is earmarked for Valencia Gardens, a San Francisco-area pantry that serves about 100 people every week.

“We guarantee them enough produce items each week for those 100 people,” Maxworthy said.

This comes as a great relief to Cynthia Pabalate of San Francisco. A single mother of three young children, she said she is grateful for the varied selection and excellent quality of the donated produce at Valencia Gardens.

“We’ve received broccoli, carrots, potatoes, yams—a wide variety and it changes every week. They also give fruit and we like all of them,” said Pabalate, whose children are 1, 5 and 7. “I have healthy kids and I love it.”

Valencia Gardens volunteer Patricia Davis said she appreciates the Farm to Family program for several reasons, but especially because she experienced food insecurity in the past.

“I’ve been where these people are when I was younger,” Davis said. “This is my way of helping them and giving back to the neighborhood.”

The concept for the Farm to Family program was developed in 1999 out of a phone call Jim Bates, chief financial officer for Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno County, made to the Community Food Bank in Fresno. Bates was interested in donating a truckload of fresh fruit. At the time, food banks generally collected only canned and dry goods, so the idea of collecting perishable products seemed impractical.

“Jim hated to see the waste and he wanted to do something about it. But at the time the local food bank couldn’t absorb what they had to offer,” Maxworthy said. “We started with stone fruit—the absolutely most difficult, fragile product that you could possibly think of to distribute. So we came up with this system of dropping product off at various food banks.”

Bates said he simply wanted to find a way to save blemished produce for human consumption.


Lolita Eddings coordinates volunteers at Valencia Gardens for the distribution of donated food. The San Francisco-area pantry serves about 100 people every week.

“Throughout the season, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of our tree fruit is culled out for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a small cosmetic blemish that the retailers don’t care for, so our packinghouse manager selects the lots that have a high percentage of that kind of defect and we put it in a food bank bin,” Bates said. “We source good quality, edible culls and get it to the local food bank. That excess ends up in the Farm to Family program.”

Fowler Packing Co., owned by the Parnagian family, grows, packs and ships peaches, plums and nectarines. Justin Parnagian, grandson of company founder Sam Parnagian, said his family is eager to assist those in need.

“We are always passionate when it comes to helping people out and this is just another venue that we can participate in. It is something we can easily do to help out our community and make a direct impact, immediately,” Parnagian said. “We are very concerned with the families in our valley and we want to provide them with as much as we can. This is one way we can provide local families with fruit that is nutritious and healthy.”

For more information about the Farm to Family program, go to the California Association of Food Banks Web site: www.cafoodbanks.org.

Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or csouza@californiacountry.org.


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