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Ohio Ag Clearance Program benefits farmers, families in need

In the 12 years Chuck Moore has been with the Food Pantry Network serving Licking County he’s heard a few stories. Some stick with him.

One of those is the story of a Kirkersville woman who frequents one of the agency’s seven fresh produce markets open throughout the county in the warm months; five of them remain open year around.

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“Our market opened there in July of 2014, and she credits the market for helping her lose 30 pounds,” he said. “She said she’s on a fixed income and because of the market she can plan her meals around fresh produce.”

That’s exactly the kind of story Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, likes to hear. The association directs the Ohio Agricultural Clearance program, a fresh produce distribution network mostly funded by the state that works to distribute fruits and vegetables to those in need across Ohio. One of the primary missions of the program is to help everyone have the opportunity to be healthier by consuming foods that have beneficial nutritional value – those “good for you” foods.

“The purpose of the program is two-fold,” said Erin Wright, program manager. “First it gets highly nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables to our Ohio friends and neighbors who many times cannot afford it, and in some cases may not have access to it. Secondly it prevents waste for Ohio’s farmers by reimbursing them for picking, packing and transporting cosmetically challenged, too big, too small, or too much grown product that would otherwise have been plowed under.”

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Dennis Clark surveys the produce at the Food Pantry Network of Licking County, one of the agencies served by the state’s Ag Clearance Program.

The program began in 1999 with an initial funding level of $500,000. It has grown over the years to a biennial budget of $20 million. Funding comes through the Ohio General Assembly and has enjoyed bipartisan support.

“We work with about 100 farmers yearly; over half have been with us for 10 years or better,” Wright said.

The cooperative effort to get healthy food into the homes of food insecure Ohioans is heralded as a model for what other states can do to help offer healthier nutrition options.

“The state of Ohio and Mid-Ohio Foodbank are leaders in the country in getting fresh fruits and vegetables to people in need,” said Dr. Bobby Moser, retired dean of Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and a board member of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, in a recent Town Hall Ohio radio interview. “Any farmer that grows food doesn’t want to throw it away.”

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Jim Marbais works with inventory, some of which comes through the Ohio Ag Clearance Program, at the Food Pantry Network of Licking County.

Wright coordinates it all. One minute she’s talking to a large producer with too much crop to sell and the next she’s on the phone with a pantry or church that can make sure that product won’t go to waste. She’s taking in orders from around the state from distribution points – often county food pantries, religious centers, other non-profits – and matching farmers and foodbanks with the necessary crop.

Farm Bureau staff has experience with Wright’s logistical magic. In November 2008, Ohio Farm Bureau and the Sandusky County Farm Bureau brought together more than 60 volunteers to hand-harvest more than 150,000 pounds of cabbage that was at risk of going to waste. In just a matter of days, 112 bins of cabbage were donated to 12 Ohio Association of Foodbanks Centers – enough to produce 121,875 meals. An additional eight bins were also harvested to be provided to Toledo-area foodbanks.

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Farm Bureau volunteers worked to help harvest almost 200 bushels of apples to donate to the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank through the Ag Clearance Program last year.

Just one year later, Farm Bureau volunteers along with volunteers from local chambers of commerce, home-school students, Soil and Water Conservation District personnel and others came together in Swanton to mechanically harvest and hand package more than 180,000 pounds of fresh carrots from an unharvested 10-acre field. Again with the cooperation and guidance of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the crop was donated and transported to 12 food banks across the state. Most recently, 15 Farm Bureau volunteers worked at Mahnke Orchards in Napoleon to harvest and donate 197 bushels of apples to the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank.

“These donations were made possible because of Erin Wright,” according to Ohio Farm Bureau staff member Rebecca Everman, who helped coordinate the projects. “Erin’s knowledge and expertise were crucial in coordinating these efforts. Everything from sourcing transportation to coordinating delivery times, she always has the answers when I call with questions and she can always find a home for any crop our farmers have available. It doesn’t matter if it’s 90 tons of carrots or 9 bushels of apples, there is a need and place for it in the foodbank system.”

“We try to keep it as simple as possible,” Wright said. “It’s all about relationships.”

Hamler-Fugitt said the Agricultural Clearance Program is a perfect example of the public and private sector seeing a good return on investment while fulfilling the “most basic of all human need.”

As the program has grown, so has interest in the fresh produce that before just wasn’t a cost-effective option for people trying to maximize their government assistance every month.

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Bob Galbraith works with inventory.

On the flip side, the fresh produce is one of the most cost-effective foods the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and other foodbanks across the state can purchase.

“It’s the least-expensive food I can buy,” Mid-Ohio Foodbank President and CEO Matt Habash noted recently on Town Hall Ohio. He said fresh produce costs the foodbank about 17 cents a pound, while shelf staples and canned goods run anywhere from 50 cents to 60 cents a pound.

Reaping a little benefit from a crop that otherwise would be plowed under is worth something to Virgil Hatch of Legend Hills Orchard in Utica, who makes apple deliveries to the Licking County food pantry network.

 

“The biggest thing is we get a little money for our product,” Hatch said. “It gives us another avenue to sell stuff. It keeps our employees busy in the off-season. There is the service part of it, too. They get a pretty good product for the price. It’s important.”

And the turn-around is quick. For example, fresh produce out of Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s Grove City warehouse is spread across its 20-county service network in 48 hours, Habash said.

Moore recalled one sweet corn delivery that really drove home to him how fast fresh produce makes it into the hands of those he serves.

“I asked (the producer) when the corn was picked and he said ‘that morning,’” Moore said. “It was going to be available at one of our markets that afternoon and possibly consumed that evening. You can’t get any faster or fresher than that.”

 

Featured Image: Chuck Moore, left, executive director of the Food Pantry Network of Licking County, accepts apples from producer Virgil Hatch of Legend Hills Orchard in Utica through the state’s Agricultural Clearance Program, administered by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

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Kelli Milligan Stammen is director of publications for the Ohio Farm Bureau.