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Food banks connect with farmers, schools to create local networks

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Food Retail

Food banks are bringing local farmers and school districts into collaborative programs that offer benefits for each of them and the communities they serve, leaders at three food banks said during a National Farm to School Network webinar.

The arrangement allows farmers to find new and sustainable markets along with ways to transport crops; food banks widen their community reach and schools get fresh produce for cafeterias and a new curriculum that gives students hands-on learning about agriculture and nutrition.

Phoebe Kitson, program manager for the Chester County Food Bank in Exton, Pa., said the food bank worked with the county park system to create an outdoor classroom where students learn about farming and nutrition.

There is a raised-bed garden program and students grow produce for their school cafeterias and for teachers to use for classroom projects.

The food bank, which has a local farmer on staff, also has land on five local farms where students go to learn about agriculture. Because the crops are organic, Kitson said, students “actually can eat the food right there in the garden.” It’s a popular site for school field trips, too.

“We’ve created opportunities for them to learn and get that hands-on experience,” Kitson said.

Jeanette Batiste, chief operating officer at Foodlink New York in Rochester said over the past two years the food bank’s focus has shifted from non-perishable foods to incorporating fresh produce as a way to affect the local food economy.

“We started building relationships with local farmers, and last year we sourced over 3 million pounds of food from farmers in our region,” said Batiste, who added that upstate New York was a great place to build community food networks because many crops were not harvested and were plowed back into the ground.

The food bank was uniquely capable of helping farmers reclaim some of their unharvested acres because it has a large industrial kitchen where workers can stabilize the produce, including cutting and freezing it for use by schools or social agencies.

For example, in Wayne County, a big apple growing area, producers found it difficult to get apples into schools because school cafeterias did not have the staff or ability to wash, cut, bag and freeze the whole apples as they came in. The food bank stepped in and did those processing chores, expanding to include other fruits and squash. Using the food bank trucks to facilitate delivery of the produce, Batiste said last year the products were in 13 area school districts.

The Food Bank of North Alabama had a different problem. Much of the food it was getting was imported, some of it from China, said executive director Kathryn Strickland. The solution was the Farm Food Collaborative that connects local farmers to schools, hospitals, workplace cafeterias and other markets.

Strickland said a study done two years ago found farmers needed help. Data showed 54% of farmers in North Alabama reported operating losses and those who had gains were still earning less than they did in 1969 after adjusting for inflation. That stands in stark contrast with data showing consumers in the region had spent $2.2 billion on food produced outside the area.

The collaborative is made up of local growers that work together to support increased ability to sell food to local buyers, Strickland said. “Farmers are no long anonymous, replaceable suppliers,” she said. “Farmers are key decision makers in how this project is run.”

The first harvest sent $160,000 in food sales to local buyers, she added.

The program is still dealing with issues of pricing, food safety certification and infrastructure problems with storage and processing. The food bank is working to facilitate delivery of produce from farms to the food bank, local school districts and even grocery stores.