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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

White Vans and Community Gardens

Thursday is harvest day in the garden behind the food pantry in Immokalee. During this cool season time of year we gather lettuce, mustard, and collard greens, as well as papayas and other crops. We then weigh the yield and stash it in the walk-in cooler as Thursday’s produce will be shared with Friday’s food pantry clientele.

About mid-day each Thursday, a white van comes rolling in with donations from one of two nearby food banks. That’s when we take a break from the garden to help unload the delivery.

I’m always curious what the food banks will provide each week. Some deliveries contain lots of frozen meat whereas the following week there might be none. One Thursday’s delivery may include no bread while the next might contain a dozen boxes of surplus loaves.

The story is similar for fruit and vegetables. Some weeks the white van is loaded with multiple boxes of one to three types of produce, including bananas, sweet potatoes, zucchini squash, or prepackaged green beans. The fresh produce is usually very well received by the food pantry’s diverse clientele of Guatemalan, Mexican, and Haitian farmworkers and families.

On following Mondays that follow these food pantry days, I sometimes find leftover produce in the walk-in cooler, supplied either from the food bank or the garden. The surplus garden produce is typically carambola (starfruit) or papaya that had been picked a little too green and left to ripen for another week. However, it’s often the opposite for leftover foodbank donations. This produce sometimes arrives at the food bank past its prime, even beginning to rot. Its only redeemable value is to compost it in the garden’s banana circle, enabling our Musas to thrive. It’s always a shame when produce begins to spoil, as it represents some of the best of the food bank donations.

I’m not too surprised that much of the donated food is comprised of highly processed meals (e.g., boxes of instant macaroni and cheese, spaghetti) and canned goods. In my opinion, some of these items are relatively better than others. For folks who’ve spent a long day in the fields, at least canned food is easy to heat up.

Apart from the canned black and pinto beans or premade tortillas, most of these groceries do not reflect the food preferences of Immokalee’s migrant households, although most will take what they can get. The food pantry director says that the Mexicans and Haitians tend to be fonder of peanut butter than the Guatemalan folks.

A major concern with each food bank delivery is the percentage of high-sugar products, which includes beverages and snack foods. As impact is often measured by the overall weight of donations, the amount of sugary drinks being distributed would surely add up to be a significant percentage of a food bank’s total contributions.

Such disparate quality of food bank donations presents receiving partners with a dilemma. Naturally, the grateful food pantries serving food-insecure communities are dependent upon these donations. But with regards to less-nutritious food donations, who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? That leaves the recipients in the position of having to take both the good with the bad.

Similarly, food banks operate out of the mercy and good will of contributing food suppliers, including grocery chains and wholesalers. This shared surplus reflects America’s vast food system and demonstrates a range of nutritional quality influenced by agricultural subsidies.

Interestingly the US crops that receive government subsidies (corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice) also provide eighty percent of the world’s caloric needs, including the processed food passed along to food pantries. Not only do the subsidies contribute to grains being cheaper than vegetables and fruit, but also to the production of junk food additives, such as high-fructose corn syrup. As a food pantry we are encouraged by the reports of food banks cutting and rejecting junk food donations, and even “nudging” clients toward healthier foods. Such a trend may translate into increased demand for nutritious and quality produce at all levels of the food chain.

This is where community gardeners can, and do, make a difference. Many food pantries, such as the one we work with in Immokalee, desire nutritious, locally grown food to balance out the deficiencies of food bank donations. Sources of good food do not have to be limited to gardens behind the pantry. With an alliance of gardeners, including churches and householders, a greater volume of food can be grown and shared.

Such collaboration couldn’t come at a better time. With federal food assistance programs being whittled away, we will need even more white van deliveries from food banks as well as fresh produce from community gardens.

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