EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a series of solutions stories addressing food waste and food rescuers in Richland County and beyond. Click here to read the first story.
APPLE CREEK, OHIO — Big box grocers often donate excess product to local food pantries as a way to mitigate waste and bolster efforts to feed the hungry.
But what can farmers do?
A Whole Community, Inc. (AWC) is a non-profit in Wayne County that has found one answer.
Through a system of partnerships with local farmers, AWC has created a produce donation pipeline that decreases food waste -- while increasing the amount of fresh, local produce offered at food pantries, free meal sites and in low-income neighborhoods.
“My husband, Charles Runion, and I view this as our ministry,” said executive director Karen Potter. “There are many needs in the community and in the world. One person cannot meet them all. Yet, if each person does one thing to help a cause that is important to them, the world will be a better place.”
The organization receives fresh produce from more than 70 area farmers, including some master gardeners who grow specific vegetables to donate. Most farmers bring produce directly to AWC’s rented space inside the Apple Creek Historical Society, where volunteers and workers sort and organize it to ensure quality.
AWC then uses its 10-unit box truck to deliver the food to its partner agencies, usually within a day or two. Crops that miss the mark go into a compost pile.
Nationwide, produce farms contributed 14.7 million tons of wasted food in 2019 -- 27.2 percent of the nation’s total.
Farms in Ohio already generate significantly less food waste than the national average. Just 2.2 percent of Ohio’s food waste came from produce farms in 2019 -- but that still adds up to 35,200 tons of food.
During the past four years, AWC has reclaimed 314,959 pounds of farm-fresh produce that was shared with over 50 food pantries, meal sites, and low-income neighborhoods, serving over 4,000 needy individuals per month during the growing season, Potter said.
In order to minimize the donation cost for growers, AWC provides or reimburses farmers for the FDA-approved waxed boxes used to transport the produce. In 2019, AWC paid over $8,000 to reimburse the farmers for the cost of the boxes.
“It may seem like a small cost, yet it is a cost that adds up,” Potter said.
AWC also provides a donation receipt so growers can receive a tax benefit for the donation.
Orrville Christian Church has partnered with AWC for about two or three years, according to church secretary Linda Holmes.
Since joining forces with AWC, the church food pantry has been able to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need.
“Our food pantry didn’t really have a lot of fresh produce. We get a lot of things from the Akron Canton Food Bank and so things were frozen or canned,” Holmes said. “A Whole Community actually enables us to have fresh produce available during the growing season.”
AWC’s food rescue operations correspond with harvest times, which typically span from mid-June to mid-October. But the organization doesn’t stop at just providing produce.
AWC also hosts classes on cooking and nutrition to help educate the public on how to turn a bag of fruits and vegetables into a delicious, filling meal. An e-book called “Veggies Made Simple” is even available on the organization’s website.
AWC also promotes healthy eating by leaving free recipes that incorporate fresh produce at its partner donation sites.
Melissa Pearce, the president and CEO of Community Action Wayne Medina (CAWM), said she’s seen a change in the way people look at produce since teaming up with AWC five years ago.
“This food rescue project makes fresh produce accessible to families that are impacted by disparities in health equity,” she said. “As (AWC) has expanded and grown, we see individuals looking forward to their produce and looking at these healthy food options as a new way of life that they may have had little of previously.”
Pearce recommended that organizations with a similar mission to AWC promote the importance of fresh produce and nutrition while addressing the access issue in food deserts.
Cultivating partnerships within the community is also a key factor in AWC’s work, whether its hosting a cooking demonstration at the health department or working with college students to harvest control-group produce from The Ohio State University’s agricultural research and development center.
AWC is largely volunteer-driven and funded by small grants and individual donations. It charges a nominal per box fee to the donation sites to further help recoup cover costs like purchasing supplies, renting storage space and transporting produce.
When asked how other communities or organizations can replicate AWC’s model, Potter had a number of practical tips.
“Do the work through a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so donations can be tax-deductible,” she advised. Pay the farmers something to help with their cost. Have at least one part-time, paid worker to coordinate, organize, communicate and be responsible for the program and volunteers. Create a fun environment for volunteers and workers. Be passionate and lead the way; others will follow.”
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: How cities like Cincinnati use a smartphone app to connect food donors, recipients and volunteers.