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Farm to Food Bank Partnerships with Vashon Food Bank

12 Nov 2020, by David Bobanick in Partnerships
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Farm to Food Bank: How to Create Lasting Partnerships

When purchasing produce from farmers, a food bank acts like one large CSA customer or wholesale CSA customer. Food banks are interested in buying produce that their food bank customers want, but also choose what to buy each week based on what donations of produce they may already be abundantly receiving at the time. For example, you are unlikely to purchase a bulk order of local onions if you will be receiving them as a donation for free from a local food aggregation organization or through gleans. With limited monetary resources, food banks are also less likely to buy local produce which retails at a higher price, unless they can do so through outside funding sources such as grants specifically for supporting hunger relief and local farmers. It is unlikely that a food bank will have committed an amount in their budget just for buying from local farmers when the overall budget will go much further finding quality produce at cheaper prices through a local food aggregate such as Charlie’s Produce and COSTCO. Securing grant funding is essential to support a farm to food bank purchasing system, and local food system programming is essential in the development of a secure food system in a community. 

Working on local food movements and purchasing produce from local farmers is an intrinsic and essential part of what the secure food system is. CSA’s are generally for wealthier customers, mainly white, as many communities of color also lack access to affordable CSA’s. Purchasing local produce supports small farmers, new farmers of color, women farmers, indigenous farmers, and helps to dismantle systems of economic and racial inequality in the food system. By purchasing from farmers, you are increasing local food abundance while also granting access to individuals who would not have previously been able to access an abundance of fresh produce. 

Recruiting farmers to purchase produce from is not an easy task. You have to form relationships with farmers and establish yourself as a reliable market. Contact a leader in the local farming community such as the president of the local farmer’s association and request to have an informational interview with them to talk about the purchasing program and to also get a sense of how the farming community operates at large. Check-in with farmers who participated in purchasing programs previously and invite them to participate in the current program and ask them for feedback. Ask interested farmers if they would like to host you for a farm tour. Post announcements on social media, farming newsletters, and in local coffee shops, farming supply shops, and grocery stores.

Most farmers will sell you produce week by week based on the varieties and quantities of available produce they post on their fresh sheets. Some farmers will agree to seasonal produce contracts if they believe their crop is reliable enough to supply the weekly agreed-upon order. It is more common to create contracts with farmers for produce that is grown in greenhouses where crops can be more protected from pests and weather damage. A product purchasing tracking system such as an excel spreadsheet or google sheet will help you keep orders organized. You will want to track the following information: date of contract or purchase, farmer name, and contact information, produce type, unit cost, poundage, total cost, delivery date to the food bank, and when invoices were paid. Sharing this document with farmers allows for greater transparency in the program and facilitates the development of trust with your farmers, allowing them to invest confidently in the food bank as a produce market. Standardize weekly deliveries in coordination with the distribution schedule of your food bank. Let growers have the option to directly deliver to the foodbank the day before customer grocery distribution or for them to deliver to a farm with a large enough cold storage to consolidate the produce into one weekly delivery. 

After the contracts have been created, the orders are in, the produce has been delivered, and the invoices have been paid, you still need to follow up and thank your farmer. Have food bank customers fill out thank you cards for farmers telling them how much they appreciate having access to fresh local produce. Give farmers information on how many customers or individuals produce fed or meals that were provided. Farmers are active participants in the food system with a passion for feeding their community. Reward their commitment to hunger relief efforts by showing them that their hard work growing food is making a difference in the lives of their neighbors; they will be more likely to continue participating in the farm to food bank program if you do. 

Be happy with the success you made; if you didn’t reach all your goals, don’t take that as a failure, but as something else to focus on for the following season. How much money went into the local farming economy? How many farmers were engaged? How many pounds were purchased? How many repeat transactions? How many relationships were strongly established? Setting up a new market and a trusting relationship with small and new growers takes time. Keep going.