This is the story of how I helped rescue one ton of fresh, farmers market produce in just over an hour. And how that food was immediately distributed to food pantries, homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other organizations across New York.
It starts with two wonderful foodie entities here in the city: City Harvest and the New York City Greenmarkets. City Harvest has been around since 1982, and is now the pre-eminent food rescue and hunger fighting non-profit in the city, rescuing millions of pounds of food each year. To quote them directly:
Meeting the Need City Harvest is New York City’s largest private response to hunger. We link the food industry and countless organizations, foundations, corporations, and private citizens to help feed our hungry neighbors. City Harvest delivers food to more than 500 emergency food programs throughout New York City, helping feed the more than one million people that face hunger each year.
The Simple Facts This year, City Harvest will rescue 46 million pounds of excess food from all segments of the food industry, including restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms. 60% of the food is produce and 75% is nutrient dense.
Greenmarkets Farmers Markets have been around for even longer, since 1976, and are now a collection of 54 farmers markets throughout the city. They rightly identify Union Square as their flagship market, with up to 140 vendors selling all manner of regionally grown and processed foods to a bustling crowd at the height of the season. Inevitably the vendors have leftover items at the end of each market day, and that’s where City Harvest and its volunteers come into play.
I showed up at 5:45pm on a recent Friday, as the market was just beginning to wind down and the first vendors were making moves to pack up after a long day. Within minutes, a team of about 18 volunteers had assembled, and we set off with (specially designed to non-toxically hold food) plastic bags in hand. I’m not sure whether it was that particular evening, or a regular thing for Greenmarket pickups (my guess is the latter), but City Harvest had brought an unrefrigerated truck, so we approached all produce and bakery vendors to ask if they had anything they’d like to donate that evening.
And donate they did! The bounty included radishes, chard, squash, corn (lots of corn), peaches, nectarines, cabbage, tomatoes, zucchini, and more, including a whopping 51 bags of produce from one stand alone. It was a new experience to be standing over a bin of food, and, rather than carefully picking through the selection for that perfect eggplant/squash/ear of corn, to instead be holding open a plastic bag while your new fellow volunteer friend turned said bin upside down to dump into the bag. As I helped one farmer load up some veggies, I thanked her and she shrugged it off, saying with a wry smile, “I know what it’s like to struggle to put food on the table for your children.” Whether they were paying it forward, giving it to City Harvest rather than the compost pile, or hurrying along the unloading process back at the farm (I can definitely relate…), all of these vendors were having a powerful impact on hungry New Yorkers.
From a volunteer standpoint, it was an incredibly high yield way to donate one’s time. I highly recommend trying it out if you’re in the area. As evidenced by the two enthusiastic volunteers bagging yellow squash and wondering aloud what it was (when I mentioned it was squash, the response was, “Cool! Like, butternut squash?”), literally the only pre-requisites are having an hour or two to spare, and being willing to talk to strangers. Simple. 🙂
To tie this to the ALS phenomenon currently sweeping the internet, my dear friend Chelsey nominated me for the ice bucket challenge yesterday. (I’m pretty inactive on Facebook so this thing really must be viral if I’ve been included!) Since peer pressure is a real – and in this case, good – thing, I jumped on the worthy donation bandwagon tonight and donated to City Harvest. A sobering fact: 1982, City Harvest’s first year of operation, was three years before I was born. In those 32 years food insecurity has only increased in NYC and across America. The incredible thing is, unlike ALS we don’t need to find a cure for hunger. The solutions are all around us. Policies must continue to be fine-tuned, and argued over, and hopefully implemented, but in the meantime, re-distribution efforts like the one City Harvest oversees are more vital than ever before.
There’s a lot to feel discouraged about in today’s food system, and I was pretty disillusioned by the time I left my corporate job at a multi-national food service company a few years ago, but you know what can put you back on the fast track to hope and optimism? Taking action. So donate to your area’s food bank, volunteer your time at a food pantry, or heck, even just shop at your local farmers market and support those hardworking agrarians. The pebble has been dropped in the pond, so to speak, and it’s up at all of us to keep the ripple widening further and further outward.