Regional Food Banks Sourcing Produce Collectively for More Variety, Less Waste
By thinking big – very big – Second Harvest Heartland and the fellow members of the Midwest Region Produce Cooperative (MRPC) are getting more fresh fruits and vegetables to hungry people at a lower cost.
In fact, MRPC is on track to distribute nearly 10,000,000 pounds of produce in the 2018 fiscal year. MRPC is a member-driven organization facilitated by and hosted onsite at Second Harvest Heartland’s facilities. The member food banks are in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois.
Vast amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables grown throughout the U.S. are brought to the MRPC. The arriving produce is then split among the members and sent out on trucks. Because of the huge scale of the enterprise, major cost efficiencies are achieved, allowing the various food bank members to provide nutritious produce at a reduced cost. The MRPC produces other benefits as well.
“Second Harvest Heartland is itself a customer of the cooperative. Our food-insecure neighbors have seen the varieties of produce available at their local food shelves increase in part because of the development of the MRPC,” said Bob Branham, Director of Produce Strategy. The MRPC allows Second Harvest Heartland to offer bulk quantities of items such as oranges, pears, grapefruit and nectarines, which aren’t grown locally.
MRPC produce is sourced from the states served by the cooperative and from faraway states like California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Currently apples, watermelon and oranges are the three highest-volume items distributed by the MRPC.
Branham also shared that sourcing fruits and vegetables through the MRPC helps Second Harvest Heartland offer the Produce Variety Subscription program for smaller food pantries, which lack the ability to distribute large quantities of any one item and instead require a mix of varieties. Produce from the MRPC can also be found at outdoor produce distribution events held at food pantries and other locations, which look and feel much like a farmers’ market.
“I’m proud of how wide-reaching our impact is and how many lives are touched,” said Theresa McCormick, Produce Strategy Manager. “As part of my work I get to visit with member food banks and it’s so rewarding seeing the produce go home with families. I know the story behind the produce and what it took to get it to that point. Seeing someone get excited about apples and oranges, that’s a cool moment.”
The collective work of the MRPC has impacts both near and far as vast quantities of food grown on farms goes to waste each year. This is in part because even if unsold produce is donated locally, any one type of produce from a large harvest can’t be consumed quickly enough by people in that region. When food banks in different states work together to source, distribute and transport produce collectively, hungry people in all regions have access to a greater array of produce choices and less food goes to waste.
“Working with the MRPC, it has been easier to gather produce and distribute it, because we don’t get an entire truckload of product, we receive a variety,” said Barbara Prather, Executive Director of the Northeast Iowa Food Bank in Waterloo, IA. “As a result, when we provide our weekly produce pantry in Black Hawk County or go to one of our 13 Mobile Food Pantries which are in outlying counties, there are three, four or more types of produce to hand out, not just one type.”
As MRPC seeks to expand its influence, several new developments are on the horizon. “We’re forming a new partnership with the Lower Midwest Produce Cooperative, based in Indianapolis, to collaborate more around sourcing and creating a food hub partnership. This will help us share more locally grown produce from each of our areas with each other, and work on new opportunities to share between our groups,” notes McCormick. These efforts will lead to an even greater variety of produce available throughout the year to Second Harvest Heartland and other food banks, while also offering opportunities to further reduce sourcing and transportation costs.
“Produce is often the product that our clients want but can’t afford. The MRPC enables us to assist our clients with product they won’t normally purchase because of the cost,” said Prather.
To learn more about the MRPC and Second Harvest Heartland’s work to get more fresh produce to our hungry neighbors visit the Produce Initiative page at 2harvest.org.