Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Young farmers and ranchers work to feed communities
Members of the Central Coast Young Farmers and Ranchers program and the Monterey County Farm Bureau partner with Ag Against Hunger to harvest surplus produce and bring it to those in need.
California is the nation's top agricultural producer, but that doesn't mean everyone living in the state has enough to eat. Members of the California Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers program aim to change that.
These young professionals (ages 18-35) work in agriculture and related careers and often work for or with the companies that grow, harvest and pack the hundreds of crops produced in California. When those companies have a surplus, YF&R members help get the food to those in need through Ag Against Hunger—a nonprofit that provides a connection between the agricultural community and food assistance programs.
Karen DeWitt, Ag Against Hunger executive director, and YF&R member Shannon Renz admire the crop's quality.
"We want to avoid good product going to waste and give back to support people in the community who are down on their luck or need some help," said Central Coast YF&R member Shannon Renz. She is sales manager at Salinas-based Taylor Farms, known for marketing salads and fresh vegetables, and one of the state's top produce donors to Ag Against Hunger.
With the help of volunteers, including YF&R members, Ag Against Hunger helps harvest or glean the surplus produce, stores it in a cooler facility and then distributes it to local food banks, shelters, soup kitchens and home-delivered meal services such as Meals on Wheels. After local needs are met, any remaining produce is shipped to other states.
A Food Bank for Monterey County volunteer helps a recipient load her cart with locally grown lettuce during the food bank's produce distribution in Marina.
"Many of the donations that Ag Against Hunger gets from the local area are leafy greens and vegetables, but we're able to trade with other food banks in the state to get a diverse range of products," said Renz, who is also a member of the Ag Against Hunger board of directors.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released last fall indicated that in 2010, 17.2 million households in the country had difficulty providing enough food for their families due to a lack of resources. Food banks have reported a huge increase in demand over the past two years, said Karen DeWitt, Ag Against Hunger executive director.
"One out of four families with children in California can't afford enough food for their family," DeWitt said. "People who used to donate to food banks are now using the food bank."
DeWitt added that an emerging trend with food banks is they are now interested in a greater abundance of fresh food donations.
Farmers and ranchers throughout the Central Coast region provide a wide variety of food products to choose from.
"People in poverty are more susceptible to obesity and diabetes because of the quality of food they receive. Even people that can't afford quality food still deserve good food," DeWitt said.
YF&R groups statewide contribute millions of pounds of fresh produce, hundreds of volunteer hours and several thousand dollars each year, but a top donor is the Central Coast YF&R, which has about 350 members from Monterey and San Benito counties who mostly work for a grower, shipper or related business.
"The young men and women involved in the Central Coast YF&R are fortunate to live and work in an area where more fruits and vegetables are grown, packed and shipped than in any other region in the world," Renz said.
Lee Hulquist, program manager of the Food Bank for Monterey County, says food assistance needs have increased.
Scott Rossi, a Central Coast YF&R member who serves as a farm manager for vegetable grower Tanimura & Antle in Salinas, said those working in the business know when the markets are too tight and they can't sell a good quality product in a particular field.
"Instead of disking it back into the ground, we're able to give back to the community," Rossi said.
Last fall, Central Coast YF&R volunteers, including Anjulee Herrin of Salinas, gleaned romaine lettuce at a Tanimura & Antle field destined for an area food bank.
"We just started cutting that lettuce and tossing it into the crates. We all made a path down each of the rows. It was a really good team effort," Herrin said. "Living in the 'world's salad bowl,' I think many people take it for granted that everyone has access to fresh, quality produce, so to give that to somebody is a big deal. When each person contributes just a little bit, they make a huge impact on someone's life."
While the number of people that require food assistance increases during the holidays, the need overall has risen from the "underemployed," such as those who work limited hours or have low pay, said Lee Hulquist, program manager of the Food Bank for Monterey County.
"Forty-four percent of the households we serve have someone in the household working and this usually means they are underemployed," she said. "About 10 percent are seniors living on a fixed income and the rest are possibly unemployed, recently laid off or disabled."
Hulquist added that about 42 percent of the food distributed at the Food Bank for Monterey County is fresh produce, which is a relatively new trend for food banks.
"People on a fixed income do not feel that they can purchase enough fresh fruits and vegetables for their family, as much as they would like to," Hulquist said. "So receiving it from the food bank is a very special program for them."
Eighty-seven-year-old Dorothy Hall of Prunedale is one of many food bank volunteers and is also a recipient at the food bank's produce distribution in Marina, which operates like a farmers market.
"If it wasn't for the food bank, there would be a lot of food that we wouldn't be able to buy. It is such a handy place to go and meet people and enjoy the variety of fruits and vegetables," Hall said. "It's marvelous. We get lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, plums, apples, potatoes, onions, bell peppers. ... I'm a salad and potato girl. You put a little bit of meat with it and you've got a good meal."
Hall also enjoys the volunteer work, which she says helps her remain active and socialize.
"I tell people that you've got to get out there and work and meet people. You can't sit there in the rocking chair," she said.
Renz and her fellow young farmers and ranchers realize that their efforts have had a positive impact on people in California as well as in other states.
"The appreciation by people to be able to receive fresh fruit and vegetables, and to be able to take it to their families to eat well, has had a big influence on me," Renz said.
Seeds of inspiration
Ag Against Hunger got its start more than two decades ago, thanks to Watsonville farmer Tim Driscoll.
While in Texas helping the needy as part of the California Agricultural Leadership Program, Driscoll became inspired to do more. He wanted to get fresh fruits and vegetables to people affected by hunger in California's Central Coast region.
In 1990, with the help of a grant from the Harden Foundation, Driscoll partnered with Jess Brown of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and Willy Elliott-McCrea of Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz to launch F.O.O.D. Crops (Food Organizations Organizing and Distributing Crops), a division of the Second Harvest Food Bank. The program grew to become its own charitable foundation and later changed its name to Ag Against Hunger, to better reflect its mission of alleviating hunger by creating a connection between the agricultural community and food assistance programs.
'Go-cart' for charity
YF&R member Zack Stuller races to fill his team's cart.
Donating food through Ag Against Hunger isn't the only way members of the California Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program help communities in need.
In Tulare County, for example, YF&R members sponsor an annual Great Shopping Cart Race through a supermarket—a timed event among several teams to fill their carts from a list of items needed by the local food bank. Each team—most made up of Farm Bureau members—has a list reader, a cart pusher, a grocery grabber and a judge; the judge follows another team to ensure the rules are followed. Competition is friendly, but fierce.
Last winter, the fourth year of competition, the YF&R team was the first-place winner with a time of 51 minutes and 11 seconds. The big winner, though, was Foodlink for Tulare County, which accepted 771 pounds of food worth more than $750. The groceries were paid for by the Tulare County YF&R chapter, Farm Bureau and private donors.
"We got a lot of food. I think we had three pickups full, so it was crazy. The food bank was more than thankful for what we did, but it is humbling to realize how much food is donated from all over," said Tulare County YF&R member Zack Stuller. "Our YF&R now plans to make even more of an effort to donate. The food banks are always in need. We can always do more."
Farther south in Ventura County, YF&R members collected thousands of pounds of produce during their first Produce Round-Up, in which donations were solicited from local growers and packers. FOOD Share of Ventura County collected produce from several companies and YF&R members drove to smaller ranches and picked up truckloads of produce.
"With no more than 10 YF&R volunteers, we gathered over 33,000 pounds of locally grown produce," said Ventura County YF&R member Chris Garmon.
To learn more about the California Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program, go to www.cfbf.com/yfr.