This story was produced in partnership with Building Healthy Communities (BHC) in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an initiative of the California Endowment.
When you pick out fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, you probably make your selection based on how an item looks. By the time produce reaches your supermarket, it has already gone through a rigorous set of inspections and passed standards brokered by growers, suppliers, and grocery stores. Requirements are shaped by factors such as size, shape, and even color, to name a few. Produce that didn't make the cut often is left to rot, un-harvested in the fields, eventually ending up in landfills.
And though these fruits and vegetables are slightly discolored or irregular in shape or size, they are still perfectly nutritious and flavorful. An over-sized cauliflower or asymmetrical tomato can still help feed a family if it is rescued before growers dispose of them. This is a story about the commitment and creative thinking of Coachella Valley locals that are helping solve a community's hunger problem. For 14 years, Hidden Harvest has worked to intervene in the produce industry's supply chain to address waste and feed some of Coachella Valley's most vulnerable residents.
Hidden Harvest Taking Root
The Coachella Valley is located in eastern Riverside County. The area is home to some of the most affluent and poorest communities in the nation, with Palm Springs in the valley's western end, and unincorporated communities such as North Shore in the east. It is the fifth largest agricultural producer in the United States with flourishing crops like eggplants, artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, dates, oranges, and lemons. When Christy Porter, a photojournalist turned food justice advocate, learned about crop waste in her community she wanted to do something about it. She founded Hidden Harvest in 2001, a produce recovery program in the Coachella Valley. Low-income farm workers are employed to "rescue" produce that typically would remain unharvested from orchards and farms.
Hidden Harvest started after an inspiring conversation Porter had with a parent in the Coachella Valley. The parent, a local farm worker, was perplexed by the farming practices he saw. He wondered why good food was not harvested and left to waste. Porter recounts his poignant remarks, "When my kids aren't in school, my wife and I skip meals on the weekend, or we split up meals so that our kids have enough food to eat. And yet there's all this food out there that's being plowed under all the time and I as a farm worker, I'm not supposed to put one single strawberry in my pocket to take home." He asked her why the system was built this way. She didn't know, but was determined to find out.
Crop Waste 101
As consumers, we are all too familiar with spoiled food in our fridge or the unfinished last few bites of food on our plate. However, the idea that crops are going to waste before they reach supermarkets isn't common knowledge to consumers. Crop waste is one of the most understudied aspects of our food system. For many growers, crop waste is simply an outcome of doing business. In a 2012 report financed by the Natural Resource Defense Council, six major drivers of crop waste were identified:
- Overplanting: Growers face a "riskier-than-average business" and have to account for unintended consequences like inclement weather or pests. Given the risks, growers often overplant crops to safeguard against potential losses to ensure orders are met for their customers. Ensuring these orders help foster strong relationships between growers and buyers for future business, but it also creates a surplus with no buyers in line.
- Low market prices: Prices for produce can fluctuate drastically. When the costs of crops are too low, it's more cost-effective for growers to not harvest their crops --this is known in the industry as "walk-bys."
- Labor shortages: Crops can go unharvested when labor is unavailable. In recent years, many growers face difficulties in recruiting and retaining skilled farm labor.
- Product grading: Growers face complications when crops do not meet certain specifications of buyers, such as shape, size, color, ripeness, and other flaws. From the field to packing facilities, problems related to product grading may occur at different levels of the supply chain.
- Anticipatory packing: Sometimes when orders are not as large as anticipated, excess packed produce is left in warehouse docks without buyers.
- Shelf-life and spoilage: Since fresh produce requires refrigeration and has a limited shelf-life, it incurs costs and encounters more logistical barriers than other surpluses. Even donated, fresh produce may face constraints that make it difficult for growers to quickly move items.
Today, Hidden Harvest recovers hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce each year. Every month, they provide nearly 50,000 low-income people throughout the Coachella Valley with access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The organization has a two-fold mission : (1) to hire low-income farm workers at $12 an hour, (well above their regular salary) and (2) to "rescue" fresh, locally grown produce from farms and area packing houses for low-income populations within the community.
Key aspects in successful produce recovery for Hidden Harvest include developing strong business relationships with growers. One important way of building these relationships is by covering liabilities to protect farmers from potential damages and losses that might occur when non-company guests are on their property. In addition, Hidden Harvest hires skilled local farm workers to harvest, an essential ethical aspect of their organizational mission. Hiring skilled and local farm labor supports area residents with supplemental income opportunities at living wages, while ensuring optimal care for the produce being harvested.
Addressing Hunger Through Asset-Based Advocacy
Once the produce is obtained, it goes to client agencies, such as local area food banks and Hidden Harvest programs. "Hidden Harvest was really founded on the idea of asset-based advocacy," says Porter. "Going into a low-income population and building on the assets that they have rather than going in there and evaluating their needs and then giving them what you think they want." An example of this is modeled on how free produce is distributed. Hidden Harvest uses a farmers market-style approach to provide low-income communities a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, where people can choose which produce they want.
"Providing choice is very important for the communities we serve," said Carl Nelson, a volunteer for Hidden Harvest of eight years. "There is something empowering about choosing what you want to eat, rather than being told what you will get." Hidden Harvest programs include Senior Markets, Healthy Fairs, and even "pop-up" events.
Hidden Harvest began their Senior Market program after learning from a 2009 UCLA study that in Riverside County, half of senior citizens living independently lacked adequate income to buy food. Today, Senior Markets occur twice a month at the same time and place and are held at eight locations in the Coachella Valley. Locations based on having high concentrations of low-income seniors, such as Section 8 housing communities. During peak harvesting seasons there are as many as 16 items available for seniors to choose from. Each market shopper averages about nine pounds of produce per market; that's 18 pounds per month. Based on the USDA valuation of fresh produce costing an average of $2.49 per pound, the seniors are saving $45 each month on their grocery bills.
In addition to encountering financial difficulties with affording fresh produce, many seniors tell Hidden Harvest the challenges they face in simply getting to the grocery store. Shoppers arrive by walker, scooters, wheelchairs, and many often have buddy systems where they line up with their neighbors to help carry produce back to their homes. "The markets are community opportunities for the seniors," says Carl. "Not only are seniors getting the fresh fruits and vegetables that they need, they are also socializing and building community. It's a great thing."
Similar to the Senior Markets, Hidden Harvest provides low-income schools with markets as well. Schools are selected to participate based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals, an indicator of community poverty. Similar to the Senior Markets, Healthy Fairs are free and set up so that shoppers can pick and choose their produce. Hidden Harvest tries to organize these events based on school calendars, that include Parent Night for example, to attract as many families as possible. Depending on the availability of produce and the growing season, up to nine different items are available at each market. If there are not enough items, Hidden Harvest will purchase additional produce so that families have at least five options to choose from.
Healthy Fairs have between 150 to 250 shoppers, each taking home 10 to 15 pounds of fresh produce. In addition, Hidden Harvest works with other collaborators like the Riverside County Department of Public Health to provide health and nutrition information.
When Hidden Harvest receives produce that needs to move quickly, mainly because of limited shelf-life, they will organize "pop-up" events. Luckily, they have strong ties in the communities to coordinate such activities with such short time frames. "You never know what produce will come up," says Christy Porter. "One time we had an over abundance of baby watermelons that couldn't wait for a market or fair. We called up a school and with their permission we started giving away baby watermelons to parents picking up their kids from school." Since Hidden Harvest has such strong ties with the community, having pop-up opportunities allows for quick movement of fresh produce to low-income populations that need them the most. Porter also notes that because Hidden Harvest is only staffed by four people, they are able to respond to growers and community with greater agility.
"Just One Row" At a Time
Growth and innovation for Hidden Harvest comes in many forms, such as developing new ways to build partnerships and inform the public about hunger and crop waste. An example of this comes from an initiative that encourages local farmers to commit to produce rescue called "Just One Row." If farmers can commit "just one row" to Hidden Harvest, they can substantially increase the amount of fresh produce they can provide to people who need it most. For instance, just one row of carrots can yield 10,000 pounds. Though this campaign, growers can commit to supporting Hidden Harvest by donating "Just One Row," while consumers can build their awareness of how "Just One Row" can make a difference in the agricultural supply chain. This initiative earned the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton who visited the Coachella Valley in 2013 to learn about Hidden Harvest's produce recovery model.
While food recovery initiatives such as this and other food movements such as the "ugly food" movement, which aims to encourage consumers to embrace odd but otherwise good produce, there is much work that remains to be done to address food waste. To date, Hidden Harvest has rescued over 16 million pounds of produce from Coachella Valley fields and packing houses, averaging over 1 million pounds a year since 2001. However, despite all of the food that they have rescued, there are thousands of pounds of produce left in farmers' fields after their harvest. Porter knows this for a fact because she sees it happen on a regular basis. Nonetheless, despite the mammoth proportions of this dilemma, she and the Hidden Harvest team --its volunteers and farm workers-- continue to work diligently to bring the fruits of this abundant land to its people.