From farms to food banks, Illinois initiative expanding after successful pilot

The Farm to Food Bank Initiative will work with more farms after a successful 2021 pilot project with Rendleman Orchards, according to Stephen “Steve” Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois.

During the recent Live Local Conference, Ericson; Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association (ILFMA); and Zach Samaras, technical assistance engineer with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, recapped the initiative’s first year and discussed plans that include adding farmers markets as delivery locations.

The initiative connects food banks with farmers to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk, meat and eggs.

Along with Feeding Illinois and ILFMA, the partners include Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Specialty Growers Association, University of Illinois Extension and the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

Last year, Rendleman Orchards in Union County shipped more than 500,000 pounds of fresh peaches, nectarines and apples to Feeding Illinois food banks.

“It worked well for us,” Rendleman’s Wayne Sirles told FarmWeek. “All the larger food banks had loading docks, and we were able to package it (fruit), palletize it, put it on trucks and take it to hubs.

“The process worked out well. We had adequate efficiency. They had coolers to store it,” he said.

The initiative offers farmers an alternative market for produce with blemishes, an odd shape, size or color and considered a No. 2 grade.

While farmers are paid for their products, the price is lower than retail or wholesale prices. Sirles described Farm to Food Bank initiative prices for No. 2 fruit as comparable to what the orchard would have received from other markets. The orchard also was reimbursed for transportation to four food banks.

“We sold a lot (of fruit) to them, and they made it easy to work together,” Sirles said. “We definitely would participate again. It went well.”

This year, Farm to Food Bank will work with at least two additional farms, Gibbs Family Farms in Woodford County and Nayak Farms in Grundy County, Ericson told conference participants.

Nathan and Alison Gibbs are setting aside 2 acres to grow produce that will be distributed to food banks through the Farm to Food Bank program. A physician, Dr. David Nayak and his Strength to Love Foundation plan to donate 16 acres of sweet corn to the Farm to Food Bank program, Ericson said.

“We’re open to different models” of working with farms, Ericson added.

Maxwell explained ILFMA is working to connect farmers markets across the state with Feeding Illinois regional food banks. Under the pilot project, farmers would deliver No. 2 produce to a market and receive an agreed-upon price. The market manager would receive, weigh and document the produce and then transport it to a food pantry or pantries, according to Maxwell.

The pilot would allow farmers markets to aggregate product and give smaller growers an opportunity to participate in the initiative, she added.

Ericson stressed the pilot is not meant to replace, but supplement produce already going from farmers markets to food pantries.

“We’ve discovered farmers in farmers markets are already donating and we don’t want to disrupt that. We just want to build on that,” he said.

Sirles recommended farmers interested in the Farm to Food Bank program consider their production and alternative markets for seconds.

“This is another market that is able to take product that in some years is hard to sell,” especially when hail or other conditions result in an abundance of off-size produce, he said.