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Billions of pounds of edible food redirected per season

US (AZ): Non-traditional food bank rescues fresh produce

Borderlands, which brands itself as a very non-traditional food bank began rescuing produce nearly 24 years ago. Yolanda Soto and board members weren’t satisfied with the food items they were working with (government commodities and emergency food box items), plus she didn’t like to have to qualify people residentially or financially in order to be able to provide food. Also, being a border community with the state of Sonora, she didn’t like not being able to share product with them. “We decided we would become a non-traditional food bank. Because we sit in a produce rich (region) we should be rescuing produce and helping to feed people nutritiously,” she explains. 



Redirecting what would otherwise be wasted
By educating growers and distributors to call the organization rather than leaving food to rot in a dump, Borderlands rescues between 30-40 million pounds of fresh produce per season. “We will take 75 per cent or better product, meaning in a box of tomatoes, at least seven or eight should be good. We would love to take it all but unfortunately we have a very small warehouse so we’re limited in space,” Soto says. Instead of companies dumping at the landfill and paying the dumping fee plus having to pay for a driver to bring it there, Borderlands goes directly to the warehouse and pick up. Food is distributed through four different programs. 

Where the produce goes
They decide how much they’ll need for each program, which is also determined by the quality of the produce. If there’s a glut on something and it’s in near perfect condition (95 - 100 per cent) it goes into the Produce Travels program. “We have 24 other states we share the produce with. I send out a mass email to partners and offer it up.” It’s offered on a first-come, first-served basis and those picking it up must arrange transportation. “My request to them is you have to move it within 48 hours since it parishes at 10-15 per cent a day so it can get out and distributed to their people,” she says.



Veggies R Us
Veggies Are Us is a daily program for non-profit organizations and direct clients, which includes Mexico as the international recipient. Organizations can pick up large quantities of produce. "Because we don’t have a public transportation system in this area we rely on the people to help redistribute the product and share it with their churches, family, neighbors – as many as possible. In essence that’s what we are: a redistribution program."



Produce on Wheels With Out Waste & Recycling programs
Produce on Wheels With Out Waste (POW WOW) is for the state of Arizona only. From November to May (their regular season) produce is offered through a farmer’s market-like setup at 70 sites, once a month. From June – August only about 12 sites operate, since Soto says there’s less produce available in the summer. Pop-up sites are run in September and October to rescue food that’s started early. “In the industry you never know when it’s going to start – could be early or later but in the last few years we’ve seen it starting earlier,” says Soto. During the month of November there could be between five – six varieties, which increases all the way until May. “Sometimes we may have 15 varieties.” For a $10 contribution, people can walk away with 60lbs of fresh produce. Interestingly enough people conscious about food waste also get their produce this way. “What I have found more and more is seeing an increase of upper and middle class visiting the POW WOWs because they want to fight food waste. I’m really excited about that.” The fourth program is for animal feed. Everything that has perished is offered to ranchers for their livestock and some is also used for composting.

Small staff relies on volunteers
It’s hard to imagine that everything is done with a staff of nine people. Soto says acquiring volunteer help from the Arizona Department of Corrections for the last 20 years is the backbone of what they do. Each day 12 inmates spend eight hours doing labor or work according to whatever background they may have; some are electricians, mechanics and even artists. “What we do to give back to them is give them as much experience in the different fields as possible so that when they transition out they have some good background to be able to find jobs. They are a great group of people.” 



Food safety
Everything received is certified. “We don’t get anything that was ever rejected.” All recipients of the food are registered in a database. Donors get a receipt of their food and the pallets can be tracked all the way to the end user. They picked up 22 loads of figs in Yuma in the summer, which was saved for donations during the holiday season. Lately there have been more green beans, cucumbers, mini watermelon, soft squashes, tomatillo, and corn as well as some chilies and eggplant. Soto would love to see other organizations and states adopt this style of operating a food bank to reach more families. “It’s a win-win situation.”

For more information:
Yolanda Soto
Borderlands Food Bank
Tel: 520-287-2627


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