Each growing season, farmers along Colorado’s Front Range reap more produce than they can sell and toss out tons of fresh fruits and vegetables or till it back into the field.
Just miles away, local food banks struggle to help the 42,000 Larimer County residents who can’t afford fresh, nutritious food. One in three is a child.
A Colorado State University graduate student and her sister, a CSU alumna, have found a way to connect the region’s food waste to the ever-growing need. Tracy Lowery, a graduate student in agricultural sciences, and Maisie Roberts, a graduate of CSU’s business school, created Foraged Feast, a nonprofit organization that “rescues” fresh produce.
Their mission is simple: connect Colorado producers with local food banks.
Foraged Feast volunteers collect surpluses of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, farmers markets, greenhouses, and orchards and deliver it to local food banks. In 2013, their first year, they rescued 60,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. This year, they doubled that amount.
In less than two years, Foraged Feast has become the largest nonprofit donor of rescued fresh produce to food banks and pantries up and down the Front Range.
A bounty of benefit
One of the keys to Foraged Feast’s success is that everyone — growers, food banks, and beneficiaries — wins.
Because Foraged Feast is a nonprofit, growers get a tax break for donating produce that would have otherwise gone to waste.
Miller Farms, an 800-acre family farm in Platteville, Colo., and the largest supplier to Foraged Feast, donated 40,000 pounds of produce this year.
Because volunteers come to the farm to collect food, Foraged Feast makes it easier for growers like Joe Miller of Miller Farms, to give.
“It takes a task off my plate,” he said. “And Foraged Feast is really important because they take it to the places where it’s needed most. Before Foraged Feast, there was a missing link.”
It also reassures him their hard work isn’t going to waste. “Our produce is helping local families in need,” Miller added.
Food banks also benefit. Historically, they largely stocked and distributed canned and dry goods. In recent years, food banks and other charitable food outlets have begun adding fresh fruits and vegetables to their pantries.
In fact, food charities must now offer a certain amount of produce to meet grant quotas. Today, fresh produce accounts for nearly half of the food distributed at the Food Bank for Larimer County.
“Food Banks really can’t exist without partners like Foraged Feast,” said Susan Kelly, (B.S. ’07) resources manager at the Food Bank for Larimer County. “What makes Foraged Feast special is their quick response time to move perishable produce from a farm to a food bank. Their support allows us to focus on what we do best – distributing food to people, families, and children in need.”
And it makes a big difference to Colorado residents and families who rely on the region’s food banks for help. Most of those who need the services of a food bank are defined as “food insecure,” which means they have limited or fluctuating access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods. This also puts them at a disproportionate risk for diet-related diseases.
Thanks to Foraged Feast, these Colorado residents receive nutritionally dense fresh produce they otherwise can’t afford.
Two beneficiaries at the OUR Center in Longmont expressed gratitude for the produce. They have been homeless since the floods of 2013. “What we take, we take to my mother’s and we do canning. We can beets, carrots, and cucumbers. When they have fruits, we make jams and jellies for food storage, for later on,” said Brynne Rance.
That’s a reality Kelly sees every day.
“One in 10 residents access food from the Food Bank for Larimer County in some way, whether it is for emergency food or ongoing assistance,” she said.
Inspiration from near and far
Foraged Feast was inspired by two different, yet connected, experiences.
The first occurred in Ethiopia. Lowery witnessed hunger and malnourishment firsthand in 2009 when she and her husband, Sean, traveled to the African country to adopt their twins.
“The trip to Ethiopia changed my outlook on food forever,” she said. “I knew then I wanted to make a difference with food security, but I didn’t know how to do it in Africa.”
The second was in Fort Collins. Lowery noticed an abundance of fresh produce going to waste, food that was desperately needed.
A class at CSU inspired her to develop a business plan for a nonprofit organization that would eventually become Foraged Feast.
“With Foraged Feast, I realized that I could be part of the solution locally,” Lowery said.
Foraged Feast reflects CSU’s strongest attributes and land-grant mission – research in nutrition, horticulture, agricultural sciences, business, outreach and a commitment to volunteerism and sustainability.
How it works
When growers have more produce than they can use or sell, they contact Foraged Feast.
Lowery fields most of those calls. She organizes times when volunteers can “rescue” produce and also finds food banks and pantries that need the fruits and vegetables.
“We try to get the food straight from the producer to the people who need it,” she said.
Some of the food is ready when Foraged Feast volunteers arrive. Other times, they pick or glean produce directly from the field or orchard. A rescue can be a box of carrots or several hundred pounds of tomatoes.
If the food is ready, volunteers load it and drive it directly to the food bank. The nonprofit records donations in pounds and tracks the amount for each farmer so it can provide them documentation for tax deductions.
One of Lowery’s recent pickups illustrates a typical Foraged Feast rescue.
One day in October, Lowery drove her red Dodge van to a farm in Lyons owned by Jeremy Marsh. Together, they stacked 39 trays of tomatoes into the van. The trays contained many of the 25 varieties Marsh grows at his greenhouses, including Cherokee Purple heirlooms, which can retail for up to $6 a pound and are served in high-end Cherry Creek restaurants.
Marsh said that if he has an abundance of produce, he’ll donate it. “It really just depends on the supply and demand,” he said. “Sales to retail outlets vary each week, and it’s great knowing the overages aren’t going to waste.”
A model for change
Lowery’s mentors at CSU praise her as an innovative problem solver and hold up Foraged Feast as a model that could someday change the way the nation’s hungry are fed.
“Tracy is fearless about taking on challenges,” said Barbara Wallner, assistant professor in CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “She moves forward in a determined and positive way that makes all around her want to join in.
Wallner also believes Lowery and her sister will find a way to expand the program.
“Tracy and her sister see no barriers; they want to determine an effective way to expand their program beyond local growing seasons, so that even more “foraged” produce can be used,” she said.
Lowery and Roberts hope that someday, Foraged Feast can become a model for change and will be replicated locally, nationally, and worldwide.
“This is how my mom raised me,” Lowery said. “And she raised us to believe that we could do it, as long as we had support from our community. Foraged Feast is not about me and my sister, Maisie. It’s about volunteering and communities helping communities.”
That was evident last November when the Foraged Feast community rallied to help those in need. Miller of Miller Farms called Lowery. He needed volunteers to help with one last potato harvest before winter set in and the ground froze.
With just a day’s notice, 100 volunteers showed up to glean potatoes from Miller’s fields, saving, in all, 11,000 pounds of potatoes.
By the time the volunteers finished, it was late and all of the local food pantries had closed.
Lowery reached out to the Kelly of the Food Bank for Larimer County. She agreed to come in after hours and accept the donation.
To Kelly, it was the least she could do.
“The volunteers had worked so hard in the cold to harvest the potatoes, “she said. “I wanted to ensure that people had potatoes, fresh produce to put on their plates for Thanksgiving.”