Americans waste an astonishing amount of food every year—30 to 40% according to one source. This loss occurs throughout the food system, from warehouses where produce goes bad before making it to markets, to grocery stores where foods are discarded based on nonsensical sell-by dates, to restaurants who mismanage their inventory.
However, nearly six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables never even make it into the system each year. Crops rot in fields, unpicked due to lack of labor, insufficient price potential in the markets, or just for being “ugly” in a world demanding perfect fruits and vegetables. The Vermont nonprofit Salvation Farms is working to help solve this problem, hoping to provide an example for others to follow.
Since its founding in 2004, Salvation Farms—which is not a farm, but a nonprofit with a mission to reduce food loss and increase the use of locally grown foods—has focused on gleaning unused produce and getting it to the state’s institutions. In 2012, the organization began a series of programs to train people how to work with the food it collects to make it easier to distribute. These pilot courses proved successful, and in the fall of 2016, Salvation Farms signed a lease on a permanent facility for this workforce development effort, called the Vermont Commodity Program.
Theresa Snow, executive director of Salvation Farms, says that the Vermont Commodity Program is “really just an evolution of how we started. . . If we’re going to start capturing a volume of food that’s reflective of what’s available on farms, we’re going to need to move it into a system . . . for cleaning, assessing, and minimal processing.”
Snow stresses that the program is about more than just distributing food. “We want to provide experiential learning opportunities,” she says, “because we think that true changes happens through people.” Omar Oyarzabal, from the University of Vermont Extension, describes many of the program’s participants as “trying for a second chance in life. They want to retrain and get competitive to get into the market.”
Students experience hands-on lessons in food safety, first aid, preparation techniques, and organization skills. The hope is that they will learn the importance of food preparation as well as general job skills that they can carry with them into food service, agricultural, or even manufacturing jobs.
They take numerous field trips to meet the farmers whose crops are donated to the program, and they visit the charitable organizations that receive their packaged goods. Thomas Case, director of Vermont Commodity Program, says, “Making that connection, meeting a farmer, just seeing the equipment, seeing the plants in the ground is important. Anyone who’s a consumer and eats should have some understanding of where their food comes from and be able to make good decisions.”
A recent participant, Natalie Bekkouche, described the course’s biggest impact for her to be “the social aspect. People who wouldn’t have otherwise come together have bonded over this common goal.” Other students express similar sentiments from “I have grown in my confidence from doing this,” to “I liked getting in the flow of production work,” and “I will be sad to leave but am excited about the future as well.”
Local farmers also benefit from working with the Vermont Commodity Program. Joe Tisbert, who runs Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont, estimates that 50,000 pounds of gleaned produce has gone into the Salvation Farms program. “Every farm has that day, that week that something can’t sell, and it makes no sense to just throw it all in compost,” he says.
Though compost is an important agricultural resource, Snow points out that more than 14 million pounds of vegetables and berries are left on farms every year in Vermont alone. Stand that number up against the 80,000 Vermonters who are food insecure each year and the more than $10 million the state’s institutions spend on out-of-state food to provide more than 19 million meals annually, and it’s clear that something has to change to get that surplus out of the fields and into the food system.
Snow emphasizes that the program’s aim is to expose people to opportunities to think about the food system and their role in it. “That’s what really leverages change—building up educated and skilled workers who can impact the type of food system we have in our state and in our country,” she says. “We’re hoping the Vermont Commodity Program will become a valuable part of that, a solution for that equation.”