Rotary Connects Food Banks and Farmers

by Arnold Grahl Senior Writer, Rotary International

A program created by Rotary Members in Seattle, Washington, USA, is fighting hunger and poverty in Arkansas thanks to connections formed through Rotary.

Since the 1980s, Rotary First Harvest has been using donated shipping to funnel donations of imperfect or “ugly” produce to Washington’s two food banks, Food Lifeline and Second Harvest Inland Northwest. The program also organizes volunteers for gleaning, the ancient practice of going through fields after harvest to pick up remaining crops for people living in poverty.

Leaders of the Seattle program visited Little Rock last fall to talk with Rotarians who have been supporting a project that helps small-scale sustainable farmers in Arkansas. The two clubs discussed ways to bring farmers and food banks together to fight poverty and build better food delivery systems.

Recently, Rotary First Harvest has taken its hunger fight to the national level with its Harvest Against Hunger initiative. The effort places volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA with partner food banks to create new programs for recovering produce, recruiting volunteers and gleaning, with the goal of increasing the quality and quantity of healthy foods available to those living in poverty.

“We refer to [the initiative] as an incubator for ideas,” says David Bobanick, executive director of Rotary First Harvest. “We are not saying, ‘Here is our model — make this work in your community.’ Instead, our approach is, ‘Here is this VISTA resource — make something that works in your community.’”

Rotary volunteers pack recently harvested peas for a partner food bank.

After the meeting with Little Rock Rotarians, Harvest Against Hunger placed a VISTA member with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance to work with local farmers, including those in the Little Rock project. The Arkansas position was part of a national pilot to test Harvest Against Hunger in six different states outside of Washington, including Colorado, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Virginia.

One effort that has been working in Washington is a Farm to Food Pantry program, which awards small grants for hunger-relief groups to form two-way relationships between small-scale or remote farmers and food banks.

“We saw increases not only in the variety of produce coming into food banks, but that those farmers selling produce were more likely to donate additional produce,” says Bobanick. “It’s one thing that could work in Arkansas. In any event, we will leverage off the pre-existing connections with the farmers in the Little Rock project.”

In Washington, Harvest Against Hunger has been used as a way to strengthen local organizations’ connections with small to medium scale growers as well as local volunteers. There are around 30,000 growers registered in Washington, so the approach of Harvest Against Hunger has been to strengthen the statewide network in a way that makes it easier and more reliable to gather smaller donations (2,000 pounds or less) of fresh produce directly from farms.

Visit Rotary First Harvest’s Produce Recovery Guide and view this video for more information on the Harvest Against Hunger program model.

Arnold Grahl is the Senior Writer for Rotary International.