It was great to spend day three at the Community Food Bank in Fresno. When I was working for the Feeding America, visiting food banks across the nation was one of my favorite parts of my job.
There’s a saw in food banking that goes, “If you’ve seen one food bank, you’ve seen one food bank.” And while each food bank is certainly unique in its own way (I've never seen a sign in a warehouse with kid Michael Jackson reminding staff and volunteers to count their inventory, for example), there is a feeling, rhythm and smell (usually of bananas and other fruit) that is consistent throughout the nation and that somehow feels like home to me.
It was also great to see my friend Andy Souza, the food bank’s CEO, who addressed our group. He highlighted the brutal irony that while Fresno is the fresh market basket of the nation, it is also one of the nation’s most food insecure areas.
So, the people who grow most of our nation’s fresh food supply are sometimes the very people who need the services of the food bank.
This is no different than in Wisconsin where many of our rural areas have rates of food insecurity, some as high as some of our urban areas. According to our analysis, food insecurity rates in the urban and metro areas of Wisconsin (12%, or about 380,000 people) match the rates of food insecurity in the smaller towns and rural areas of our state (11%, or about 326,000 people). Complicating the issue is that rural areas often the infrastructure of services and are more difficult to reach. This has deep implications on how we orient our services to better reach our rural areas.
Listening to Andy talk about how they transformed the way they do business to better meet the nutritional needs of their clients was inspiring. In the last four years, the Fresno Community food bank went from distributing 3 million pounds of fresh produce to over 20 million. They are well on their way to achieving a product mix of 50% fresh produce leaving their warehouse.
It can be done.
The one thing that I kept hearing is that there is so much food out there. We just have to build the resources and infrastructure to get it. In order to do that, we have to surmount these challenges:
- Transportation and distribution: Our biggest choke points are getting the product out of the fields and then into the homes of the people visiting our pantries. Trucking is expensive and with nearly 350,000 open CDL jobs in the nation, companies can't seem to hire enough truck drivers. And on the distribution end, with the limited life of the product when we get it, we have to be able to move it fast or move it into a value-added processing supply chain to extend the life.
- Cost of recovery: Donating fresh produce can be expensive when you add up the costs of totes, bins, bags, labor and trucks. Often, it can just be simpler to plow perfectly edible market seconds under. Additionally, the volatility and unpredictability of harvests make budgeting for this source of food difficult. Remember when the green beans came in early in Wisconsin last summer?
- Aftermarket competition: Market seconds are perfectly edible and nutritious food products and the market is noticing. Other secondary and tertiary markets are creating some upward price pressure on our stream of fresh food.
We are preparing to release the outline of a pilot public-private partnership that would begin to test and address some of these challenges.
In the meantime, how can you help?
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- Read part 1 and part 2 of this trip