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Farmers, grocers give millions of pounds of produce a year to food banks

WASHINGTON - A family visiting its local food bank might expect to find cans of old green beans, but are just as likely to find fresh squash, cucumber, tomatoes, melon, jalapenos, bell peppers and salad, community organizers said.

"I think it really makes their day," said Brian Simpson, spokesman for the Association of Arizona Food Banks, of the farm-fresh produce that state food banks put out with other foods.

Food bank advocates say that bounty is possible because of the generosity of farmers and grocers throughout the state, who donated nearly 16 million pounds of produce in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

And those donations were down from a typical year because of unusual cold weather that affected crops. In most years, fresh produce donations from Arizona farmers and grocers total about 20 million pounds to food banks inside the state and beyond.

Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief charity, received 885 million pounds of donated produce last year, said spokesman Ross Fraser. He could not provide state-by-state donation numbers, but said simple math would indicate an average of 16 million pounds of donated produce in each state every year.

Neither Feeding America nor the Association of Arizona Food Banks differentiates between donations by farmers and those from other sources, like grocery stores, so any numbers they provide include donations from both. But Simpson and Fraser both said that farmers are generous givers.

That is especially true in Yuma, said Mike Ivers, the president and CEO of the Yuma Community Food Bank.

He said that over the last five years, Yuma-area farmers donated 832 truckloads of produce that was distributed throughout Arizona and to the rest of the nation. They also donated about 6 million pounds of produce to the Yuma Community Food Bank over that period.

Ivers said the food bank has received donations from farmers since the day it opened in 1978, and farmers were instrumental in the organization's development. Those continued donations are important, he said.

"It's a war on hunger and we're all in this together," Ivers said.

Simpson said the food banks association donates food outside Arizona when a growing season is especially fruitful. Several years ago, a successful melon season left food banks in Arizona with too many melons. They sent the surplus melons to food banks in other state, and in return got apples and onions, produce that is not grown in Arizona.

"We're really in a blessed relationship," Simpson said. "We have a system that helps feed hungry people."

Duncan Family Farms, which describes itself as one of the nation's largest providers of organic spinach and arugula in the winter months, has donated produce to local food banks for over 20 years.

Its founders created a mission statement when they started the farm in Goodyear, and that mission hasn't changed, said Patty Emmert, the specialty crop manager for Duncan Family Farms.

"Part of that mission is making sure that everyone - regardless of income or social status - has access to clean, healthy food," Emmert said.

That's important in Arizona, a state "that has a large population of people who are food insecure," she said.

The idea to donate food began when the farm had produce left in the fields and farm owners Arnott and Kathleen Duncan wanted to provide for the community.

"Instead of tilling it back into the ground, they designed the gleaning program," Emmert said of a statewide program that picks surplus produce from the fields where it would go to waste and redistributes it to organizations like food banks. The statewide program uses prison inmates to glean the crops.

Duncan Farms donates 1 million pounds of produce, including cabbage, romaine lettuce, spring mix spinach, beets, carrots, and radishes, to local food banks, Emmert said. As long as food in the field is edible and safe, she said, nothing gets thrown away.

"Obviously you want to sell most of your product," Emmert said. "But at the same time if we know that we're able to help get food into the hands of people that don't have access, that's a big part of our mission and business."

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