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Food Bank Farms: How They’re Feeding the Hungry, Farmers, and Themselves

August 10, 2016 |

In a food system known for its surplus, food banks are a vital redistributor of would-be waste. However, as more people become interested not only in the amount of food that they receive, but also in its quality, an increasing number of food banks across the country are transcending their traditional roles by getting involved in the production of fresh produce grown specifically for their clients.

The idea of growing food specifically for those in need isn’t new. Early church communities instituted the practice of tithing to encourage gardeners and farmers to grow a part of their field for those in need, and French farmers once embraced the custom of leaving their field edges unharvested for peasants to glean at the end of the season. But in a modern capitalist system where food is a commodity with an assigned dollar value and farming is a difficult way to earn a living, the idea of planting, tending, and growing food to intentionally give it away is novel to say the least.

What’s just as novel is that food bank farms often double as fertile training ground for new and young farmers. Though some food bank farms choose to simply contract with an existing farm, many began or have been carried on by new growers equally interested in learning their craft and furthering a social mission of feeding the hungry. So not only have food banks found a way to become producers, they’ve actually extended the scope of their already magnanimous work to help nudge along the training up of the next generation of farmers.

In concept and in practice, this may all seem a bit utopian. Farms that try to make money by selling produce often fail; how does one that gives their produce away manage to make it? Are young farmers really learning how to farm if they’re not learning how to keep a conventional business stable? Is the growing number of food bank farms real systems change or just a short-term fix?

Over the next few weeks, Seedstock will profile food bank farms across the country to examine these and other questions. We’ll look to quantify the impact of food banks farms on food access, land use, and education and present some of the challenges food bank farms encounter. And along the way we’ll also meet some of the growers, organization leaders, and community members who are taking the lead on producing directly for those in need to see how food bank farms manage—or don’t manage—to feed the hungry, new farmers, and themselves.

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