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News / Life / Clark County Life

Produce finds path to Clark County food pantries

Clark County Food Bank collects fresh fruit, vegetables from farms, gardens to distribute to those in need

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: October 27, 2019, 6:05am
9 Photos
Karen Dickerson, left, and her mother Mary Harriman recently began visiting Community Kitchen, a food pantry in Fruit Valley. Harriman said she looks for foods that can go together to create a meal.
Karen Dickerson, left, and her mother Mary Harriman recently began visiting Community Kitchen, a food pantry in Fruit Valley. Harriman said she looks for foods that can go together to create a meal. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

What does it take to bring fresh ears of corn to a food pantry? Or ripe, juicy pears?

It’s much more complicated than gathering cans of beans or jars of peanut butter, that’s for sure. But the Clark County Food Bank says offering fresh food is worth the extra effort.

Food banks are recognizing that quantity of food — any food — is not their exclusive goal, said Alan Hamilton, the food bank’s executive director. Over the last five years or so, their focus has increasingly shifted toward quality, nutritional food.

“It’s really the idea that food is medicine,” said Kim Eads, manager of food assistance programs for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “Many times clients coming into the food pantries are in a vulnerable physical state.”

You can help

  • Want to volunteer for the Clark County Food Bank at the 78th Street Heritage Farm? Work parties are held from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and Saturdays. Visit www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org/farm to sign up.
  • Want to share your garden bounty? Bring your produce to the Clark County Food Bank at 6502 N.E. 47th Ave. between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays or take it to a partner agency. Visit www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org/shareyourharvest for more information.

In 2014, her agency undertook the Farm to Food Pantry Initiative, in which food pantries form contracts with local farmers for food. It boosts business for small farms, which often also donate food. Last year, the cost to purchase food was $1.02 per pound for fresh food, but donations brought the actual price down to 39 cents per pound.

The amount of produce the Clark County Food Bank collects from farms and gardens has grown significantly in the last few years, reaching 154,039 pounds last year.

People drop off what they’ve grown in their private gardens. Vendors at the Vancouver Farmers Market and Salmon Creek Farmers Market offer unsold fruits and veggies. Local farms donate or sell produce.

And for about a decade, the food bank has grown its own produce at the 78th Street Heritage Farm.

Sarah St. Pierre, a farming and gleaning associate serving the food bank through Americorps, said growing produce requires hundreds of volunteers every month between May and October.

“It’s very much a community effort,” she said.

St. Pierre worked alongside students from Endeavor Elementary harvesting butternut squash on a recent morning.

She sees the benefit of growing fruits and vegetables as two-fold: The food bank is able to deliver high-quality produce to those who need it, and it’s able to educate people about where food comes from.

Cucumbers, summer squash and peppers are among the first to be harvested, while winter squash, corn and carrots are among the last.

Succession planting, which staggers crops so they mature at different times, allows multiple harvests throughout the summer and fall. Timing is key to ensuring a good supply without creating an overabundance that leads to waste.

“It’s always a challenge,” Hamilton said. “Every year we get a little smarter.”

For instance, when the food bank first started harvesting acorn squash, staff learned the hard way that refrigeration deteriorated it. Now squash is left to cure in boxes in the warehouse.

“There are a lot of things out of our control, the weather for one,” St. Pierre said, noting that some corn just didn’t grow this season.

In recent years, the food bank has further tested its green thumb by planting food on undeveloped land in Cold Creek Industrial Park in Minnehaha, where the food bank is located. These acres of corn and squash are often called Colf Fields because the industrial park is owned by the Colf family, which supplies the land and water for irrigation.

Why corn and squash? They have a longer shelf life, and corn in particular is a crowd pleaser.

“A tomato — you need to harvest it on the right day and eat it within a couple of days,” Hamilton said.

After produce is harvested, the trick is getting it into people’s kitchens before it rots. In a one-month period, St. Pierre estimated they had harvested 20,000 pounds of squash.

The food bank’s 26,000-square-foot building is a “game changer” when it comes to storing all of this produce.

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“You have to have the warehouse space,” Hamilton said. The food bank aims to quickly move that produce into food pantries or give it away at pop-up events around town.

“I want to see the shelves empty because they’re filled and emptied fast,” Hamilton said. “We want to move it to the people who need it.”

There’s also the matter of gauging people’s interest in certain foods to help tamp down waste. Emily Kaleel, director of programs at the food bank, said distribution partners are asked to provide feedback three times yearly.

In the past, the food bank didn’t plant cabbage because it attracts aphids. But clients frequently request cabbage, so the food bank planted a few rows and plans to add more. After letting zucchini and cucumbers grow quite large, the food bank heard that families preferred them smaller, so now they’re harvested sooner.

The food bank doesn’t currently track food waste from farming efforts. About 3 to 4 percent of food gathered through the grocery store recovery program goes to waste. The food bank either composts it, or offers it to farmers as animal feed or compost material, Kaleel said.

Freedom to choose

Mary Miller is an Americorps volunteer involved at the other end of the supply chain. She works at Community Kitchen, a pantry run by the food bank in Fruit Valley, where she regularly checks the produce to make sure it’s in good shape.

“I’m really the one who gets to see people taking it and leaving with a smile on their face,” Miller said.

Throughout the pantry, signs suggest creative ways to use certain foods, such as a recipe for pumpkin muffins posted next to canned pumpkin or a recipe for Grape-Nuts cookies next to bags of the cereal. Pantry workers remind people they can freeze things such as bananas or plums.

“I have a new respect for the grocery business,” Miller said.

Mary Harriman recently began visiting Community Kitchen, which is within walking distance of her house. She said the produce isn’t always the freshest. She was hesitant to take some avocados that felt mushy. She also looked at the brown bananas with skepticism, but her daughter, Karen Dickerson, pointed out that they could be used in banana bread. Harriman selected some apples to make applesauce.

She said she had hoped to see items that complement each other or could be put together for a meal. She spotted tomatoes, but not garlic or onions to make salsa, for instance. She was surprised not to find corn at this time of year.

Harriman said she grew up poor and has learned to make do. Her father was a fisherman and when times were tough, the family would prepare salmon in dozens of different ways. She said she always had a good meal when they had meatless Fridays.

“I can make something out of just about anything,” she said.

Community Kitchen doesn’t generally limit how many items people can take, except for meat and dairy. Clients have the freedom to pick what they like and know they’ll use, which stems food waste at home. They enjoy fresh, healthy foods just like everyone else, Miller said.

As the harvest season wraps up, she said the food bank welcomes whatever is left from people’s garden bounty.

“We even take green tomatoes,” Miller said.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith