Special Reports

Fresno-area farmers work to reduce food waste, feed hungry

Every year, millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables never make it to the grocery store. Instead, they are fed to cattle, dumped in landfills or spread out on dirt roads for dust control.

But eight years ago, a group of farmers and food bank officials launched a program to help reduce food waste and shift some of their edible produce to those in need.

Known as Farm to Family, the program's donations have grown more than 10-fold since it began. Last year, it collected 127 million pounds of produce. And this year, it expects to bring in 140 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We have seen substantial growth every year and we attribute that to the generosity of California farmers and the extreme demand that we have for food assistance," said Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, operators of the Farm to Family program.

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Sigler estimates that 5 million Californians report that they are unable to afford the food they need -- including many seniors and working parents. Fresno had the second-highest food hardship rate in the nation at 24.3%, according to a 2011 study.

Through the Farm to Family program, everything from lettuce picked in Monterey to plums harvested in Fresno are being collected and redistributed to food banks throughout the state.

Jim Bates, chief financial officer for Fowler Packing, and one of Farm to Family's original suppliers of food, said the program serves as an important outlet for farmers who are tired of seeing their food wasted.

"It is a shame," said Bates. "We end up harvesting an awful lot of fruit that is very edible and nutritious, but it just isn't marketable."

Bates says the problem of food waste is a vexing one for farmers, especially in the Valley, which has one of the highest hunger rates in the nation.

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Andy Souza, chief executive officer of the Community Food Bank, said his agency provides more than 24 million pounds of food each year to families at distribution events in towns throughout Fresno, Madera and Kings counties.

And the need keeps growing.

"We have become the major source of produce for the people we serve," Souza said.

Because of that, Souza has stepped up efforts to reach out to farmers about donating some of their regular and unmarketable produce.

The work has paid off. Souza saw donations to the food bank go up 80% in July and August.

"We have made a conscious effort to reach out to the local farming community," Souza said. "Because if we are going to make a difference for the clients we serve, produce has to be a big part of it."

Farmers say the reality is that not everything that is grown ends up being consumed. A recent study by the National Resources Defense Council found that waste in farming can amount to as little as 1% to as much as 30%, depending on the type of crop.

Dana Gunders, project scientist at NRDC, said those figures can translate to a lot of food.

Gunders says that if just 5% of U.S. broccoli production is not harvested, that would amount to more than 90 million pounds of broccoli that would go uneaten. That would be enough to feed every child participating in the National School Lunch Program more than 11 4-ounce servings of broccoli each.

In the Valley's tree fruit industry, suppliers of much of the nation's peaches, plums and nectarines, the amount of waste is chronically high.

Bates, who represents one of region's leading tree fruit growers, estimates that between 20% to 50% of the fruit is wasted. Although a portion isn't edible, most is.

Food waste experts and farmers say the reasons produce never makes it to market are many.

Fruit that is too small or slightly blemished by retailer's standards can be rejected.

Steve Couture, a westside melon and asparagus grower, said that in his industry about 10% of the asparagus may not meet industry standards because of something as simple as the tip is broken off or the spear is misshapen.

"It fails by appearance, but not by quality," he said.

Overproduction and falling market prices can lead to what farmers call "walk bys," or fields that are left unharvested.

"Sometimes it costs more to harvest the fruit than to leave it on the tree, so you have all this fruit and what do you do with it?" said tree fruit farmer David Mas Masumoto. "Unfortunately, what we grow ends up being defined by economics and our fruit becomes unmarketable."

Food bank officials say they realize that programs like Farm to Family rely, in part, on a grower's generosity. But they also are working on ways to provide farmers some financial help to get usable and edible fruit out of the fields.

In 2011, the state passed a bill giving farmers a 10% tax credit for their food donations, joining other states, including Colorado and Arizona, that offer similar benefits.

Also, the association of food banks provides a limited amount of funding to cover the cost of removing the produce from the field.

"If we can provide a few pennies per pound to get that food out of the field it can mean the difference between that food being used or it being tilled under," Sigler said.