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Community Reliance: Finding a Way to Distribute the Bounty

By Sarah Merfeld, Phase II Fellow

The Urban Farm produced a bounty of vegetables this summer. We were harvesting hundreds of pounds of cherry tomatoes weekly, loads of sweet peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and more. It was more produce than we had a market for, especially considering that our main buyer, the school cafeteria, was closed for summer break.

As any gardener can appreciate, having too much produce can be a source of anxiety! We did not want to see this food rot in the field or merely add it to the compost pile. So we began making weekly deliveries to the Valley Mission, a shelter in downtown Staunton, VA. Thus far in the season, we have donated over 1,300 lbs. of produce.

Donating fresh food with a fast-approaching expiration date can be worrisome. The fear is that the food will not get eaten and will instead be thrown away. These organizations make it easy for us, ensuring community members will eat the food. The Valley Mission insists that they will take whatever we have, in any quantity. This open request for food incentivized us to make weekly deliveries; we knew our time spent harvesting extra produce was worth it.

The Valley Mission kitchen staff has amazed us. They take all of our produce and cook it on site, serving three meals a day to the residents. They love Swiss chard, collard greens, cherry tomatoes, eggplant -- anything we bring in. Sometimes the delivery includes odds and ends, like a few random zucchini that are about to go bad. The staff gladly added miscellaneous items to whatever they we cooking. Additionally, they are boiling and freezing tomatoes and summer squash to eat in the winter. To top it off, they compost all the food waste that the kitchen produces. Every time I made a delivery, the head of the kitchen recited the line, “We don’t waste anything.”

This past week, the AMI Urban Farm team and Administrative Manager, Julia Church, went to the Mission to help serve lunch. It was such a nice change of pace for us to get out of the heat and hang out with residents and kitchen staff. It is beautiful to see the bonds of community amongst the staff and residents. Julia remarked that they seemed like a big family.

As a not-for-profit farm, I believe that it is important to ensure that the food we grow finds it way into the bellies of our community members. Sometimes this task is not as easy as it may seem. Often a gap exists in the local food shed, where extra produce rots and people in the community are undernourished. It feels liberating to develop this relationship with the Mission in which we are relying upon one another. The shelter exists because of donations. We are obviously not donating as much as the grocery stores or other large suppliers, but we are donating appropriately to our scale. This partnership is vital to us because we do not have time to seek out all the individuals and families faced with food insecurity in our neighborhoods. We are able to just drop off the food at the Mission, knowing that they will cook the produce into delicious free meals. This relationship between a farm and a shelter exemplifies the importance of creating connections within our local food sheds.

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