The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets is offering "Fresh Connect" grants to benefit direct-market farmers and low-income populations.
The goal is to enable farmers to move more products while a needy segment of the community reaps the benefits of our local harvest. I'm certain that a multitude of proposals are being submitted from all over the state, many of them looking to start up new farmers markets in underserved areas. We're lucky that in the North Country we have many farmers markets to choose from.
I've spent much of the past week writing one of these grants and looking at the challenge from a different angle. It's a bit of a long shot, I'll admit, but if awarded, it will provide an opportunity to train food-pantry employees and volunteers in simple food-preservation techniques. Local perishable food could then be saved for distribution to clients in the off-season.
As a farmer myself, I have never looked at all the extra unharvested vegetables as "wasted food"; it's just compost waiting to happen, large bundles of nutrients waiting to be returned to the soil. But I also understand that it is potentially food to be shared with the rest of the community. The trouble with much of our local harvest, though, is that it's fairly perishable.
Why not just preserve all those excess tomatoes for the food pantries? Unfortunately, it's not as simple to preserve produce for donation as it sounds. Processing procedures must follow the same safety guidelines as any business looking to sell such goods as jams, pickles or canned tomatoes. A 20-C license is required for most preservation, and the procedures and recipes must be approved by the Food Venture Center in Geneva, N.Y. Commercial kitchens and proper equipment are needed — thus necessitating the grant — to help offset some of the licenses, fees, equipment and training workshops.
A colleague recently filled me in on her visit to the ComLinks Cooperative Gleaning Program in Malone. Gleaning is defined as "the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields." ComLinks is doing a great job of processing the local harvest. The farmers bring loads of produce to the commercial kitchen, and the ComLinks staff preserves it for them. The gleaning program keeps a percentage of the food as payment to distribute to schools and other programs. The farmer is able to keep the rest of the processed food to sell. Win-win.
I also wondered if we, as a region, were doing enough to stock our food pantries with fresh local produce, eggs, cheese, meat, honey, etc. Often, direct-market farms have extra amounts of harvest that they are willing to donate or sell at a reduced rate. In Elizabethtown, at least one community member routinely connects with local farms to arrange for extra produce to find its way to the food shelf.
Adirondack Community Action Programs has used its Senior Nutrition Program vehicles to pick up gleaned vegetables from farms during meal deliveries. The produce was transported back to the agency's kitchen for incorporation into the future meals. The farms were paid for produce that otherwise would have been composted, and the program was able to use local food for a bargain price.
Countless other food pantries are reporting increased donations of fresh local produce. I encourage you to seek out ways to help your community stock the food shelves with delicious local fare. In the end, we all benefit. Adirondack Harvest is a regional organization dedicated to connecting our local farmers with consumers and can help you in your quest for local foods. Visit www.adirondackharvest.com for more information.
Laurie Davis is an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Reach her at 962-4810, Ext. 404, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.