CEDAR RAPIDS — Not so long ago, most of the food on the shelves of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program food bank were things like boxed macaroni and cheese, tins of tuna and canned fruits and vegetables — shelf stable goods that won’t go bad anytime soon.
HACAP still has a lot of those staples. But a growing amount of the fruits and vegetables they distribute don’t come in a can.
The nonprofit, which acts as a central food reservoir for more than 100 area food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs, distributed more than 230,000 pounds of fresh produce between August 2016 and August 2017. The year before, they distributed just under 87,000 pounds.
That’s part of a nationwide trend to make food donations more healthy, said Linda Gorkow, Food Reservoir director at HACAP. That trend also includes a larger emphasis on fresh meat and milk.
To better accommodate the increase in fresh food, HACAP is in the midst of a fundraising effort to double its cooler and freezer space. Agency officials also plan to convert one freezer so it can be used as either a freezer or cooler as needed, and to address needed maintenance; one of the organization’s two freezers, purchased 17 years ago, is at the end of its life.
The project will cost around $185,000, Gorkow said, and they have about $15,000 left to raise.
HACAP serves partner agencies in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties. Food also goes out on HACAP’s mobile food pantries and through programs like Senior Totes that provides donations to food insecure older adults, and to Operation BackPack that sends food home with school children on weekends.
That program has increased from serving 134 students at eight schools in the 2008-2009 school year to serving 2,759 students at 77 schools in 2016-2017. In addition to fundraising for the cooler and freezer upgrades, HACAP is seeking increased donations to support that program.
The uptick in fresh produce comes from big donors like Walmart, Hy-Vee and Aldi and from small donors like the Linn County Master Gardeners program, through which members contribute vegetables from community gardens. Another effort netted more than 2,500 pounds of food this summer, when volunteers picked up unsold food from vendors at the end of each Saturday morning Cedar Rapids Downtown Farmers’ Market. HACAP also is part of a purchase pilot program through Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks. Through the network, HACAP buys food in bulk with other food banks, driving down costs.
Jim Gradwell is operations director of Michigan-based produce distributor Walsma & Lyons, which recently opened a Cedar Rapids location. Fresh fruit and vegetables pass through their warehouse, from which they send it on to smaller distributors, who then send it on to individual restaurants and schools.
That supply chain means food needs to be shelf stable for a long time. Produce they can tell won’t last as long, but that still is edible and good, was discarded until Gradwell connected with HACAP. They throw out about 10 percent of their intake, he said.
It makes financial sense to donate the produce, as it defrays the cost they would incur sending it to the landfill, but he said the financial impact is minimal. The social impact is what motivates him.
“It’s just the right thing to do. It physically makes me ill when I see what we throw away. It’s stuff I would eat,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one in the warehouse who found it disheartening to throw out good fruits and vegetables.
“The employees were pressuring me hard. It was frustrating to everyone involved,” he said.
However, he is only sending HACAP a few pallets a week, which he said is a small portion of what Walsma could donate.
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“We could donate tons of stuff, but they don’t have enough space for all we could donate,” he said. “Once their addition comes along, we’ll be able to provide more.”
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