Helping Harvest

Food bank program helps both the hungry and growers.

Community

Helping Harvest

Food bank program helps both the hungry and growers.

By Charles Johnson

It always bothered Matt West when any of his sweet potatoes got rejected because of blemishes or defects. Losing money bugged him but what hurt most was that the potatoes he’d worked hard to grow would never make it to anyone’s plate.

“With all the hungry people in the world, there’s absolutely no reason a sweet potato with a blemish or a size problem shouldn’t be eaten by somebody, somewhere,” says West, who farms at Fayetteville, Tennessee.

Good match. When Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee came along with its “Farm to Families” program, West jumped at the chance to participate. That program provides farmers with enough money to cover their basic costs and also ensures that the produce ends up on hungry folks’ dinner tables.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody. It’s a shame that the American people are so picky about sizes and little imperfections that have nothing to do with quality or taste. This program is second to none, in my opinion. Second Harvest comes and gets the potatoes. They’re very easy to work with. Then they do a great job of showing how to prepare the produce. Second Harvest has a chef, a kitchen and classes for consumers. So many people these days don’t even know how to cook this stuff,” West says.

Crystal Miller manages vegetables for Double H Farms inside the city of Nashville.

Crystal Miller manages vegetables for Double H Farms inside the city of Nashville.

The food bank, based in Nashville, covers 46 counties in middle Tennessee and serves 450 partner agencies. The Farm to Families program helps it move beyond offering mostly imperishable food items. In 2011, when the program began, fresh produce made up only 1% of the food bank’s total  offerings. Now it’s more than 25%, says David Cloniger, Second Harvest’s food resource manager.

“We want to get more fresh produce and healthy food to the people we serve. At the same time, we want to help out local farmers,” Cloniger says.

Jess Liff’s 300 acres outside Nashville is almost all in pasture devoted to her horse therapy operation. But she plants a 3-plus-acre garden in vegetables grown strictly for the Farm to Families program. In return, Second Harvest volunteers weed and harvest the garden. She likes it that way.

“Farms don’t typically grow just for the food bank. It’s really great this could happen with Jess,” Clonger says. “It’s nice to be able to give people the best stuff. For one example, we get the very best sweet corn from Jess. We hardly ever get that because sweet corn is such a perishable crop.”

Synergy. Liff says the garden is a good fit on her place. “It seemed like a natural thing to add for us. There’s a lot of synergy with the horse therapy operation. When we got this farm a couple of years ago, just about every square inch was in corn. Now we have potatoes, squash, beans, tomatoes, sweet corn. It’s exciting. And the people who come out because of it have mostly never been part of farming or this kind of program,” she says.

Matt West, who grows sweet potatoes at Fayetteville, Tennessee, calls the Second Harvest program a win-win for everyone.

Matt West, who grows sweet potatoes at Fayetteville, Tennessee, calls the Second Harvest program a win-win for everyone.

Just four miles from downtown Nashville at Glen Leven Farm, where people have grown things since the 1780s, Crystal Miller stays busy with a big, mostly heirloom garden. She works for Double H Farms, the Hermitage Hotel’s sustainable farming project on this property, now owned by the Land Trust for Tennessee.

“We grow for the restaurant’s chefs. Anything that’s excess or not perfect goes to Second Harvest. What the chefs want determines what we grow. This year we had nine varieties of tomatoes and 16 varieties of lettuce. We had cabbage, broccoli, greens, all sort of stuff.  I like to teach the volunteer kids about it. The inner city kids we’ve had come through here have been just amazing,” she says.

No more amazing than the program itself. “People now eat fresh food instead of just out of cans,” Cloniger says. “We’re filling a gap.”

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