Earlier this month I spent an energizing day recovering excess food — beautiful, healthy fruits and vegetables — on the Rolling Harvest Food Rescue truck with founder Cathy Snyder. Working and/or volunteering on the front lines of hunger relief efforts provides great insights into many entrenched challenges of the food system, one of which involves the preponderance of shelf stable, low-nutrition food items being distributed to the food insecure population through a well-intentioned, resource-constrained food banking system. Canned and processed food items are easily transported and stored, hence their long dominance at food banks, yet these items tend to be low in nutritional value and can exacerbate health problems among the food insecure (leading to the harsh reality that we’re spending additional resources to move food items that will actually increase long term health care costs). Conversely, fresh fruits and vegetables — items that are high in nutritional value — present greater operational challenges in terms of recovery, storage and distribution and therefore remain in short supply at food banks and pantries. And although fresh produce items are in short supply at hunger relief agencies, we waste vast amounts of these items throughout the food supply chain. It’s a systemic, costly problem, and it needs to be solved.
Fortunately, providing healthy food (fruits, vegetables, and meat) to the food insecure in northeast PA and western NJ is Rolling Harvest’s sweet spot — and at the core of its mission since inception in 2009. Starting with little more than a truck and a commitment to providing food pantry recipients with the same healthy food choices as others, Rolling Harvest has grown quickly by creating strong relationships with food producers backed up by reliable, timely service. More than 30 farms/producers now happily share their excess bounty — highly nutritious fruit, vegetables, and meat that would otherwise go to waste due to market conditions and packaging issues — and Rolling Harvest immediately distributes that food to more than 60 hunger relief sites in the region, notably surpassing the one million pound mark (or nearly three million servings of healthy food) this summer. Relationships and reliability are the magic formula in food recovery; and that fact is abundantly clear when the Rolling Harvest van pulls up to donor farm locations.
First stop this day, Roots to River Farm in Solebury, where we picked up a large quantity of sugar baby melons, along with beets, carrots, and tomatoes from farmer Malaika Spencer. From there, we moved quickly to Solly’s Farm in Ivyland, where Bob Solly provided crates of excess Yukon and White potatoes along with an enthusiastic commitment to do all that he could for the region’s hungry. Conscious of time, we moved on to Bright Farms in Yardley, where we picked up numerous boxes of spinach, kale, and other greens. A Bright Farms employee summed up the win-win nature of the relationship nicely, noting that “It’s great that this food goes to people versus the dumpster…and it reduces our costs too.” It’s worth noting that Bright Farms further embraces the “circular” theme by bringing inedible food such as roots to an adjacent farm for composting to rejuvenate the soil. Productive re-use versus disposal; another win.
After a quick loading process, we proceeded to the day’s distribution site at a church in Bensalem, connecting with an additional truck provided by partner Gravity Hill Farm loaded with containers of pristine apples from Solebury Orchards and cantaloupes from Shady Brook Farm (and our food supply was further augmented with a van load of additional produce from the Carversville Farm Foundation).
At the site, individuals from 19 hunger relief sites in the region jumped in to help in the unloading and sortation process to allow for an efficient, equitable distribution. Excess apples, melons, cantaloupe, beets, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, yellow squash, multiple cases of greens, and even New England cheese pumpkins — all provided at no cost through caring community partners. In about two hours all of this healthy food was gone, distributed to food pantry representatives who would immediately put it to its most beneficial use — feeding hungry people.
Food recovery and distribution work is simultaneously gratifying and humbling, positive and disturbing. The recipients are thrilled to have access to such healthy food, and the donors are excited to help make it available, so it is incredibly rewarding to be a part of the process. At the same time, the lack of access to such healthy food for so many in the community is troubling — especially when roughly 40% of our food goes to waste annually. There is an air of quiet resolve among the participants; this is real, this food is needed, and it is valued accordingly. And despite all of our efforts, the distribution is hard work. It’s hot, there is little shade, the produce is heavy, and many of the dedicated pantry representatives are quite elderly. Further, our truck lacks a lift gate, requiring a very manual process of offloading apples and cantaloupes into totes which quickly become heavy. Handing off 50+ pound totes to senior citizens is gut-wrenching; you want to save them all from lifting such weight. Despite the circumstances, all of the recipients pitch in together. No one shies away from a heavy load, and no one seeks more than their share. Numerous individuals suggest creative ways to make the offloading process easier; and some good-natured ribbing occurs. The spirit of the group is uplifting; it exudes community and hope. With everything unloaded, the food is quickly disbursed, goodbyes are said, and the pantry participants hurry back to their locations. A parking lot that was full of healthy food is suddenly empty; and we’re left with the satisfaction of knowing that we’ve made a difference today for many in our community as we move on to an afternoon of additional pick-ups and deliveries of local fruits and vegetables. We also discuss equipment and infrastructure needs to make the process more efficient; the lack of a lift gate truck slows us down and creates safety challenges.
As noted above, such brief excursions to the front lines bring many of the problems of the food system front and center, and they stick with you. One of the most critical problems involves nutrition and a lack of access to high-quality calories, so we’re fortunate that there is growing recognition of the need to bring a nutrition focus to hunger relief. Linking in the tremendous opportunities in excess food — redirecting fresh produce and other quality food rather than wasting it — is another strong positive. Farmers are incredibly generous; they don’t want to waste the results of their hard-earned work and would much prefer to redirect it to hungry individuals. Many retailers and manufacturers are similarly inclined to donate excess produce and meat proteins. They all need a reliable partner to build the bridge, and when organizations like Rolling Harvest can provide it — with a focus on nutrition grounded in a sense of food fairness and equity — magic happens.