California Gleaning Org Diverts Food Waste from Field to School Lunches
May 15, 2018 | Pamela Ellgen
When Holly and Terry Delaney poked their heads into the kitchen at the Salvation Army where a friend was undergoing a one-year program toward self-sufficiency they were disappointed to see mostly frozen and canned goods being served. When you’re in recovery and trying to get healthy, you should be eating healthy food, they thought.
With the budget constraints of a nonprofit organization in mind, the pair approached local farmers in their community, the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Central Coast, who agreed to let them glean produce from their fields or pick up food that didn’t sell during farmer’s markets and distribute it to local charities. One by one, new farmers agreed to contribute, and within a year, the Delaneys realized they had a viable nonprofit organization themselves. They registered Veggie Rescue as a 501(c)(3) in 2011.
Its mission is to redirect or glean local produce from farms, farmer’s markets, home gardens, and orchards and deliver it to charitable organizations and school lunch programs. Farmers receive a charitable contribution receipt. Beyond the tax write off, they also save on the labor, storage, and disposal costs related to processing unwanted food. Charities receive local, often organically grown produce delivered to their door at no charge.
Initially, the Delaneys used their personal vehicle, a pickup truck to gather and distribute produce. It had no refrigeration or even a canopy, which complicated the operation. They would pick up food on Saturday or Sunday, park the truck in the shade, spray the produce with cool water, and cover it with burlap sacks until it could be distributed to schools and senior centers on Monday morning.
In 2012 Veggie Rescue received a grant to purchase a refrigerated van from the Orfalea Foundation through its School Food Initiative. One of the stipulations of the grant was that Veggie Rescue make serving schools its top priority, which they were already doing and eager to continue.
“Sadly, in Santa Barbara County, many of our schools have students qualifying for free or reduced lunches,” says Veggie Rescue’s Executive Director Amy Derryberry. “The children in our county need and deserve nutritious food so they can be successful at being kids.”
Veggie Rescue regularly delivers fresh produce to Santa Barbara Unified Schools and Solvang School, and Derryberry says the model has the possibility to change the way meals are served in schools around the country as well, but only if those schools are already prepared to cook with fresh food. This requires education for the kitchen staff and the equipment necessary to receive fresh produce. “If the school kitchen has the equipment, the education, and the desire, our produce will have a huge impact on the children who are being served that food,” she says.
Janet Stevenson, Foodservice Director at Solvang School says the relationship with Veggie Rescue has changed the way they look at food both within their kitchen and among the students. “We have received around 14,000 pounds of gorgeous, fresh food from our local fields and orchards this year,” she says. “Our student’s connection to the salad bar has deepened, and we truly could not sustain the integrity of our program without them.”
Many of the ingredients the school receives are less familiar to students, but Stevenson tries not to turn anything away. “We roast fennel and beets, shave radishes, and make incredibly delicious kale chips, for example,” she says.
Veggie Rescue’s impact can be measured not only through financial savings for schools, senior centers, and other nonprofits – many of the organizations served by Veggie Rescue are able to substantially reduce their food budgets – but also through subtler changes that take place in the people being served. Derryberry recounts a situation in which Veggie Rescue had been supplying the greens for a school salad bar. After a particularly intense freeze in the Santa Ynez Valley, no fresh greens were available and the school’s chef had to source conventional lettuce from the grocery store. “The kids went through the salad bar that day and said, ‘What is this lettuce? Where did you get it? Yuck! This doesn’t taste anything like what we’re used to!’ Their palates had become accustomed to fresh, local organic lettuce,” Derryberry says.
Veggie Rescue now works with 25 different farmers and picks up from two farmer’s markets each week and plans to do more in the future. In 2016, the organization delivered 170,000 pounds of fresh produce. This year it has set a goal of contacting all of the famers in Santa Barbara County as well as all of the organizations that feed people.
“We’re just scratching the surface of the potential of this. There is so much food that remains in the fields or that the farmers take to the market that doesn’t sell,” Derryberry says. “Depending on your perspective, it’s either a shame or an opportunity. We look at it as an opportunity. We turn that waste into something that people are happy to see on their plates.”