A new study shows millions of pounds of produce go uneaten in Vermont every year and yet nearly 80,000 Vermonters are living in food-insecure households. Volunteers, legislators and farmers are trying to find ways to bridge the gap between unused food and people experiencing hunger.
On the first cool, cloudy morning in weeks, Bartlett Leber is one of about a half-dozen volunteers picking corn at Crossroad Farm in West Fairlee.
“Look at that piece of corn. Look how perfect that is? Wouldn't you want to have that on your table?” she said, smiling as she added the corn to her large orange basket.
She and the other volunteers are with Willing Hands, a nonprofit group of "gleaners" who go to farms with surplus produce. They gather the fruits and vegetables and distribute them to food shelves and other organizations that distribute food.
“It's complicated, it's work. You go to places and pick up produce, you rearrange everything in the truck,” Leber says of the distribution process. “We started our route down in Claremont and kind of worked our way up the Upper Valley. It's a great experience!”
Crops don't always grow as planned. When it has been particularly hot, like it has been this summer crops grow at different speeds; sometimes faster than farmers can sell them.
Or sometimes the produce is esthetically imperfect. Restaurants often will not buy blemished vegetables even though they are perfectly edible.
Annually, that is a lot of uneaten food — 14.3 million pounds to be exact.
“14.3 million pounds is more than 7,000 tons and that could fill 7,000 pick-up trucks. If you line up those 7-thousand pick-up trucks, they would extend 26 miles,” said Theresa Snow, the founding director of Salvation Farms, a group that recently studied food loss in Vermont. "That is how much food is left on Vermont farms each year.”
What is "food loss"?
Snow describes food loss as produce that has not been harvested, sold or donated.
Snow says some of the reasons it is not being pushed into the food stream include: “A lack of demand or over saturation in the market and ... this issue of the product may not be cosmetically perfect.”
“It says to Salvation Farms that there's tremendous opportunity to move this food into the food system, into the right avenues," she added.
Some of that imperfect, but edible, produce ends up at the Upper Valley Haven. The gleaners from Willing Hands drop produce off at the Haven almost daily.
Jennifer Fontaine, the Haven's director of community services and operations, says on an average day 65 households come in needing food assistance.
“Some days we're running higher. Last week, we were at 80 [households]," she says standing in their food shelf, which looks and functions more like a grocery store. "Then we start to feel the stress of more people in the building, more product being rotated."
Another potential avenue for the unused produce could be in Vermont schools.
This year, Sen. Michael Sirotkin of Chittenden County put forth legislation to try and close the gap between hungry kids and surplus produce.
“What we're trying to do is get a universal meals program in the school and gleaning can help be a facilitator in making such a program less costly” he said.
Universal Meals is a federal program where qualified schools provide breakfast and lunch free to the whole school population.
More than 20,000 children in Vermont are living in food-insecure households. But with more gleaner volunteers and storage facilities there could be fewer experiencing hunger.