Illinois Farm to Food Bank Feasibility Study report now available online

Cover page of Farm to Food Bank report

As reported in previous posts, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has been collaborating with Feeding Illinois, the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, and other stakeholders to explore ways to reduce food waste from farms while also recovering nutritious fresh foods to increase the state’s food supply and help citizens facing food insecurity.

Recently, project partners released the initial feasibility study report from the first year of this project, entitled “Exploring the Development of an Illinois Farm to Food Bank Program.” The report is available in IDEALS, the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship, at http://hdl.handle.net/2142/114171.

Through interviews, surveys, focus groups, and pilot projects it became clear that a Farm to Food Bank program would be welcomed by both the farming and food banking communities in Illinois. Such programs are defined in the Code of Federal Regulations [at 7 CFR 251.10(j)] as “the harvesting, processing, packaging, or transportation of unharvested, unprocessed, or unpackaged commodities donated by agricultural producers, processors, or distributors for use by Emergency Feeding Organizations (EFOs)” – i.e., hunger relief agencies. Several such programs exist throughout the United States, though not in every state (for examples, see the “Lessons from Other Farm to Food Bank Programs” section of this report). While commonly referred to as Farm to Food Bank, these programs can also operate as Farm to Food Pantry programs.

While this is an ongoing research project, this report serves to demonstrate research efforts undertaken from December 2020 – February 2022 that have led to this conclusion along with identifying strengths, weaknesses, threats, opportunities, and recommendations for a statewide Farm to Food Bank program.

Recommendations for 2022 and beyond include the following:

Three essential aspects of a farm to food bank program1. A Farm to Food Bank program should have three primary goals:
➢ Support farmers by providing a secondary market for off-grade and  surplus products.
➢ Increase access to local, nutritious foods.
➢ Reduce food waste/surplus on farms and associated energy and resources.

2. Equity must be an essential part of the program.
3. Seek out partnerships with existing aggregation and processing centers.
4. Seek out partnerships with new food pantries.
5. Make Feeding Illinois and their member food banks a staple at ag-focused and food access events.
6. Increase communication between food banks.
7. Ensure buy-in from food banks and food pantries.
8. Improve capacity and resources at the food pantries.
9. Connect a Farm to Food Bank program with existing
technology platforms.
10. Diversify funding sources. Develop an advocacy plan to pursue public and private support.
11. Establish an advisory board to guide the actions of the Farm to Food Bank program.
12. Develop guidance and educational programs for farmers.
13. Measure success by more than just pounds of donated food.
14. Hire a dedicated employee to manage the Farm to Food Bank program.
15. Adapt the program as needed.
16. Continue piloting Farm to Food Bank strategies around the state.

While these recommendations can serve to guide Farm to Food Bank efforts, further research is needed to uncover opportunities and test collection and distribution strategies. ISTC and Feeding Illinois will collaborate to continue this research for the remainder of 2022 into 2023. The project team will continue outreach and engagement efforts to both increase participation and gather feedback on the program. They will also continue to work with Rendleman Orchards, which participated in the first pilot project of the study, as well as conducting additional pilot projects. In the coming year, ISTC and Feeding Illinois will also work with farmers markets around the state to test aggregation strategies.

Read more about this project on the “Project Descriptions” section of the TAP website.

 

 

May 1-7, 2022 is International Compost Awareness Week

2022 International Compost Awareness Week poster

Did you know that the first full week of May is celebrated annually in the US and other countries as International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW)? Composting is a way of recycling organic materials (e.g. grass clippings and other yard waste, as well as food scraps) to create a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Things that have grown break down and support the health of soil and thus new growth–that’s the idea behind the theme of this year’s ICAW: Recipe for Regeneration: Compost.

May 1-7, 2022 has also been declared Compost Awareness Week in Illinois, thanks to the recent adoption of SR0706 by the 102nd Illinois General Assembly. See https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocTypeID=SR&DocNum=706&GAID=16&SessionID=110&LegID=137663 for the full text of the resolution and related information.

The Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC), a not-for-profit organization that advances diversion and composting of organics in Illinois through advocacy, program implementation, market and business development, policy, and outreach, has lined up a variety of events to celebrate ICAW. The following are highlights of IFSC’s ICAW events, beginning Sunday, May 1 at 9 AM:

Sunday, May 1, 9 – 11 AM, The Mike Nowak Radio ShowLearn how composting and using finished compost regenerate Illinois soil to grow nutritious food with friends from the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County and the Vernon Hills Park District’s Community Garden.

Sundays, May 1 and 8, 1 – 4 PM, Wednesday, May 4, 5 – 7 PM, Collective Resource Compost Gift-BackPay just $5 per 5 gallons of finished compost at The Talking Farm in Skokie. Separate registration requested.

Monday, May 2, 12 PM, IFSC’s kick-off program (virual event) – “What’s cookin’ with IFSC, the US Composting Council (USCC) and ICAW.” Details here.

Monday, May 2, 12:30 – 1:30 PM, Vermont Organics Recycling SummitJoin IFSC at the Vermont Organics Recycling Summit and listen to Keynote Speaker Finian Makepeace of the Kiss the Ground Project. Separate registration required.

Tuesday, May 3, 7 PM, Illinois Farmer Expert Panel (virtual event) – Hear farmers describe their farm, crops, operations, and compost use. Details here.

Thursday, May 5, 7 PM, On-Farm Tours (virtual event) – Learn the benefits of regenerative agriculture and composting via prerecorded farm tours. Details here.

To learn more about the benefits of composting, see https://illinoiscomposts.org/why-compost/. To learn how to start composting, see https://illinoiscomposts.org/start-composting/.

TAP project helps Rendleman Orchard get surplus fruit to food banks

Boxes are loaded onto a truck for delivery to the food bank (photo credit: Zach Samaras)
Rendleman Orchards worker loads boxes onto a truck for delivery to a food bank (photo credit: Zach Samaras)

ISTC and Feeding Illinois partnered with Rendleman Orchards during the 2021 growing season to ensure no fruit went to waste. Through the USDA’s Farm to Food Bank grant, Feeding Illinois was able to pay Rendleman Orchards its picking and pack-out costs (PPO) which represent the farm’s costs to harvest and package the product and enabled the donation of the peaches, nectarines, and apples. The fruit was either off-spec, meaning it did not qualify to be sold in typical primary markets due to size/weight/blemishes, or surplus, meaning that the farmer did not have a buyer or market outlet for the fruit. The project team helped Rendleman Orchards avoid waste, recoup their costs, and provide fresh local nutritious fruit to Illinois neighbors in need.

Rendleman Orchards started by providing 48 cases of peaches to Tri-State Food Bank’s Vienna, IL hub. After initial success, St. Louis Area foodbank and Northern Illinois Food Bank began receiving cases of peaches and nectarines as well. As demand grew from the food banks, Rendleman Orchards aggregated peaches and nectarines from neighboring Flamm Orchards.

Each week Rendleman Orchards reached out to a specific contact at each food bank with quantities available. Interested food banks placed orders with Rendleman Orchards by the end of the week and either pick-up or receive a delivery the following Tuesday. Tri-State Food Bank and Northern Illinois Food Bank orders were delivered, while St. Louis Area foodbank picked up directly from the farm. All invoices were sent to Feeding Illinois and were paid upon confirmation of receipt from the food banks.

By the end of the 2021 growing season, Feeding Illinois reimbursed Rendleman Orchards $272,182 to cover the PPO costs for the donation of 567,085 pounds of Illinois-grown fresh fruits: 7,458 cases (372,900 lbs) of peaches; 539 cases (26,950 lbs) of nectarines; and a combined 167,235 pounds of bagged and bulk apples. An additional $10,420 was paid for associated deliveries to the four recipient food banks.

Read the full case study.

Champaign County group receives funding, seeks participants for commercial food scrap compost pilot

CCES logo

This fall, the Champaign County Environmental Stewards (CCES) received a ‘Land, Health, Community’ Lumpkin Family Foundation Grant to help launch a commercial food scrap compost pilot project at the Landscape Recycling Center (LRC) in Urbana, IL. This grant will primarily be used toward the construction of a concrete bunker at the LRC for the processing of food scraps collected from pilot participants.

CCES is a non-profit community organization formed in 2019 to support efforts to provide area citizens with safe and convenient collection options for household materials that pose potential problems at the end of their useful life. CCES is an organizational member of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition.  Joy Scrogum, a member of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center Technical Assistance Program (TAP) who works primarily on zero waste projects, serves on the CCES board of directors.

The pilot project will provide pre-consumer (i.e. back-of-house) food scrap collection service to recruited commercial food scrap generators (e.g., grocery stores, commercial kitchens, and restaurants) located within or nearby Urbana. CCES will collaborate with the City of Urbana Public Works Department, which operates the LRC, and local sponsors.

CCES is currently recruiting participants for the pilot project and coordinating collection service details with the selected local waste hauler Dale Levitt Disposal (DLD) in Urbana. DLD will offer pilot project participants flexible collection options (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) at a service subscription rate of $6 per each 32-gallon container.

Additional funding received from the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois will allow CCES to provide 32-gallon collection containers for separate stream collection of commercial food scrap at no cost to pilot project participants.

Benefits of participation include:

  • Less odor, weight, and volume of landfill-bound trash, resulting in a potential reduction of waste hauling costs
  • Recognition as an organization that composts
  • Benefits to the environment–less food in landfills means less greenhouse gas emissions
  • Benefits to the local community–gardens and landscapers purchase locally-sourced compost from the LRC, and pilot participants will be contributing to the production of that compost

CCES recruiting participants

Businesses interested in being part of this pilot project should contact Scott Tess, srtess@urbanaillinois.us, (217) 384-2381.

Development of this pilot project was spearheaded by CCES board member Grace Wilken, in collaboration with CCES Executive Director and Champaign County Recycling Coordinator Susan Monte, and City of Urbana Sustainability & Resilience Officer, Scott Tess.

Lessons learned from the pilot will hopefully allow for the development of permanent commercial food scrap composting service in the area in the future.

To learn more about CCES, visit https://www.ccenvstew.com/. Sign up for the CCES newsletter to receive updates on this and other initiatives at https://mailchi.mp/ace7dcc98d86/newsletter.

This post originally appeared on the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC) Blog. Thanks to IFSC and the CCES Board of Directors for allowing ISTC to share this post.

US EPA releases report on environmental impacts of US food waste

EPA infographic on environmental impacts of US food waste
Image from US EPA Office of Research and Development.

On November 30, 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new report entitled “From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste (Part 1).”

This report reveals the climate and environmental impacts of producing, processing, distributing, and retailing food that is ultimately wasted and projects the environmental benefits of meeting the US goal to prevent 50 percent of food waste by 2030. The report was prepared to inform domestic policymakers, researchers, and the public, and focuses primarily on five inputs to the US cradle-to-consumer food supply chain — agricultural land use, water use, application of pesticides and fertilizers, and energy use — plus one environmental impact — greenhouse gas emissions.

This report provides estimates of the environmental footprint of current levels of food loss and waste to assist stakeholders in clearly communicating the significance; decision-making among competing environmental priorities; and designing tailored reduction strategies that maximize environmental benefits. The report also identifies key knowledge gaps where new research could improve our understanding of US food loss and waste and help shape successful strategies to reduce its environmental impact.

The new report reveals that each year, the resources attributed to US food loss and waste are equivalent to:

  • 140 million acres agricultural land – an area the size of California and New York combined;
  • 5.9 trillion gallons blue water – equal to the annual water use of 50 million American homes;
  • 778 million pounds pesticides;
  • 14 billion pounds fertilizer – enough to grow all the plant-based foods produced each year in the United States for domestic consumption;
  • 664 billion kWh energy – enough to power more than 50 million US homes for a year; and
  • 170 million MTCO2e greenhouse gas emissions (excluding landfill emissions) – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants

In short, significant resources go into growing, processing, packaging, storing, and distributing food. Thus, the most important action we can take to reduce the environmental impacts of uneaten food is to prevent that food from becoming waste in the first place.

A companion report, “The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste: Part 2,” will examine and compare the environmental impacts of a range of management pathways for food waste, such as landfilling, composting, and anaerobic digestion. EPA plans to complete and release this second report in Spring 2022. Together, these two reports will encompass the net environmental footprint of US food loss and waste.

Read the full report at https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-11/from-farm-to-kitchen-the-environmental-impacts-of-u.s.-food-waste_508-tagged.pdf.  (PDF document, 113 pages)

For questions, contact Shannon Kenny, Senior Advisor, Food Loss and Food Waste, US EPA Office of Research and Development.

Farmers show interest in Farm to Food Bank Program

shipping crate of peaches
Credit: Zach Samaras

While thousands of Illinoisans go hungry every day, up to 40 percent of food goes uneaten. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), Feeding Illinois, and other organizations are partnering to explore new, viable ways to connect farmers directly with food banks to increase the state’s food supply for the food insecure and reduce waste.

The Farm to Food Bank program partners are conducting a feasibility study for a statewide program, identifying approaches to address barriers, evaluating logistical challenges, and uncovering locally appropriate strategies. The result will be a roadmap used to roll out a state-funded program in Illinois, according to Zach Samaras, ISTC technical assistance engineer.

Besides ISTC and Feeding Illinois, study collaborators include the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. In the first year, the team has conducted a farmer survey, started a pilot project, and visited the eight state food banks.

Farmer survey

One of the first actions was to create and distribute a statewide survey to farmers. Questions pertained to the type of product that farmers produce, their marketing strategies, barriers to production, and food losses. Slightly less than 10 percent of survey participants responded. The next step is survey analysis.

Farmers are also being recruited for focus groups to be held at an agricultural conference in early winter. This will be an opportunity for the collaborators to gauge farmers’ interest in the possibility of participating in a Farm to Food Bank program and collect further information on factors that would make participation more feasible for producers. Those interested in participating in focus groups should contact ISTC at info-istc@illinois.edu.

Pilot project

In the first pilot project, which started this summer, Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass donated grade 2 peaches to a food bank in southern Illinois. Grade 2 produce is typically small or has slight blemishes.

The organizations are looking to find an optimal mixture of incentives for farmers to participate in the program. In this case, the farm receives a tax deduction for the donated produce and reimbursement from Feeding Illinois and the food banks for the “pick and pack” costs.

The pilot project quickly scaled up from two pallets of peaches transported to one food bank in southern Illinois to over 40 pallets sent to four food banks in various parts of the state.

“While we are very happy with the numbers, our biggest goal was to build relationships between the farmers and the food banks and develop a process that could work for a variety of farms across the state,” said Samaras. “We certainly feel like we are on the right track.”

Farmer feedback

Since the program began, farmers have been receptive to learning more about the opportunity, said Steve Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois. Actual participation has been more challenging because once the growing, harvest, and marketing seasons begin, farmers find it too disruptive to start or change plans already in place. Also, it is important not to interfere with existing relationships farmers have with food pantries, which are distribution centers that receive food from food banks.

“The primary thing we’ve learned in this first year is that this is a learning year, Ericson said. “The interest is definitely there. In general and by nature, farmers are community-oriented. ‘Helping others’ is in their DNA. We want this program to provide a meaningful way for them to do that as a group and individually.”

A major future challenge will be determining the logistics of transporting a certain volume of produce efficiently from the farm to food banks. The growing season for specialty crops in Illinois is only six months long, a time when farmers are consumed with work at the farm. Another barrier is that Illinois’ specialty crop farms are for the most part smaller and more widespread than those in other renowned produce states.

Convincing farmers that it is worthwhile to build business relationships with food banks versus contributing locally will take time to instill and to prove the benefits, Ericson said.

The Farm to Food Bank program is supported by the USDA through The Emergency Food Assistance Program. For more information, visit the Farm to Food Bank Program website.

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Media contact: Zach Samaras, 217-265-6723, zsamaras@illinois.edu
news@prairie.illinois.edu

UIUC research shows smaller plates reduce food waste in dining halls

UI dining hall

Research conducted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scientists from two departments within the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) demonstrates that the simple act of changing plate size and shape can have a significant impact on food waste in university dining halls.

In an article published in May 2021 in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling, authors Rachel Richardson [former graduate student in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE)], Melissa Pflugh Prescott (assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition), and Brenna Ellison (associate professor in the associate professor in ACE) describe data collected at two dining halls on the Illinois campus in the Fall of 2018. The researchers and dining hall staff monitored and limited the dishware available for patron use.  The only intervention in this study was a change in plate size and shape. Traditionally, the university dining facilities used round plates (9″x9”). In this study, the round plates were replaced with oval platters (9.75″x7.75″), decreasing the plate’s surface area by 6.76%. Both the round and oval plates were tested at each dining hall, and the menu offered was the same for both plate types.

After diners selected their food, but before they sat down at a table, researchers approached them and asked permission to take a picture of their plates and to weigh the plate of food. Participation was incentivized with an entry in a later drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card. Participating diners additionally filled out a survey, and when their plates were brought to the dish return, the researchers took a post-consumption picture and weight measurement. The survey included a question about whether diners went back for seconds; in that circumstance, a post-consumption weight was not recorded.

A total of 1825 observations were collected with 1285 observations retained for analysis. Observations were excluded if the participant: only selected food using non-standard dishware (e.g., only eating a bowl of soup); submitted an incomplete survey; was missing a pre- or post-consumption photo; did not return their plate; or returned plates with different food on them than selected.

Overall, food waste went down from 15.8% of food selected for round plates to 11.8% for oval plates. This amounts to nearly 20 grams (0.7 oz) less food waste per plate. In a setting where thousands of meals are served, this seemingly small reduction could quickly add up. The researchers concluded that changing plate type is a viable strategy to reduce food waste, though dining hall managers need to weigh the cost of purchasing new plates against the potential savings. They speculate that combining the direct-nudge approach of smaller plates with an education campaign could be even more effective.

Read the full article at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105293.

Learn more

Note: This post was originally published on the ISTC Green Lunchroom Challenge blog, which is maintained by Technical Assistance Program staff. Check out that blog for more news, resources, and tips on preventing food waste and diverting food from landfills via rescue, repurposing, composting, and other strategies.

Tools to increase creativity and reduce food waste

dragon fruit

Food waste in the home can often occur because of boredom or limited knowledge of how to use certain ingredients. A consumer may have leftovers in their fridge that they don’t want to waste, but can’t bear to eat one more time in the item’s current form while simultaneously not knowing how to repurpose the item for a new dish. Or perhaps they’ve acquired an edible item that’s completely new to them, so they’re not sure how to use it in the first place. This can happen when shoppers impulsively buy exotic produce or other ingredients at grocery stores without having performed research ahead of time–maybe the item just looked intriguing on the shelves, or its praises were sung by a friend or trusted podcast, prompting a desire for a new experience without adequate guidance.

This type of food waste also happens when food banks distribute fresh produce in an effort to promote healthy diets without simultaneously distributing tips on how to use the produce. Donated commodities may not always fall within the range of familiarity for a food recipient and they may find themselves having no idea what to do with the celery root or artichokes in their pre-packed food box.

Even if one is familiar with an ingredient, sometimes it loses its appeal when used in the same way time after time. Imagine a parent who frequently buys peas because their children love them. Those kids might become less receptive to the peas after having them prepared the same way at least once a week for a year. Below are several sites that provide inspiration for cooking unfamiliar foods or preparing familiar ones in new ways.

Recognizing that inspiration is as important a tool in keeping food out of landfills as compost piles and meal planning, the Love Food Hate Waste Canada website includes a section called “Get Inspired.” This section not only includes tips on how to preserve or store foods to prevent waste and meal planning, it also provides a page called “5 Ways With.” This page presents five interesting ways to use ingredients in the categories dairy, fruits & veggies, grains & bread, and meat & eggs.

5 ways with page

For example, broccoli stalks can be used in fritters or pesto or as an addition to soups, salads, or stir-fry. Links to recipes are provided when the suggestion calls for more detailed instruction.

The flagship Love Food Hate Waste website, launched by the UK organization Waste & Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, includes a “Recipes” section that allows users to search for ideas based on dietary parameters, preparation difficulty, or cooking time.

CookIt from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Save the Food website helps consumers find recipes for a wide variety of ingredients, including those that are commonly thrown out as scraps, such as overripe avocados or cheese rinds. It also provides ideas for transforming ingredients that are “past their prime” to get the most use out of available food. Some of the recipes are accompanied by videos of Chef Joel Gamoran making the recipe.

save the food.com logo

SuperCook allows users to search for recipes based on ingredients they have on hand. Similar tools include MyFridgeFood, Cookpad, Cookin’ with Google, and the Use Up Leftovers tool on the BigOven recipe database website.

The next time you’re faced with unfamiliar or uninspiring food, don’t throw it out! Get out your smartphone and consult these online tools and resources to find a way to make that edible appealing.

Note: This post was originally published on the ISTC Green Lunchroom Challenge blog, which is maintained by Technical Assistance Program staff. Check out that blog for more news, resources, and tips on preventing food waste and diverting food from landfills via rescue, repurposing, composting, and other strategies.

Farm to Food Bank Survey Deadline Extended, Focus Groups Planned

Graphic encouraging IL farmers to complete an online survey by March 30, 2021

In a previous post, we described a collaborative feasibility study being conducted by ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP), Feeding Illinois, the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, and the Illinois Farm Bureau, to collect information on locations, types, and quantities of surplus food in Illinois. Through a producer survey, a series of focus groups, and implementation of pilots across the state, the team looks to uncover the optimal mix of incentives and program interventions to overcome the current barriers to efficient flows of fresh food produced in Illinois, to Illinois residents, with as little waste as possible. The goal is to identify opportunities to develop a statewide farm to food bank program that will address food insecurity and food waste.

Graphic representation of the study elements, as described in the text of the blog post

To help with this effort, farmers from every region of Illinois are encouraged to complete an online survey at go.illinois.edu/farm2foodbanksurvey. The survey will remain open (responses accepted) until a target number of responses have been received to ensure a robust sample size. The survey takes approximately 10 minutes to complete.

Participants are also being recruited for a series of virtual focus groups. The focus groups will be crafted to gather input from all regions of the state, as well as perspectives from underserved farmers. Participants will include producers, representatives of hunger relief agencies, and food distributors. Input from focus groups will supplement, validate, and contextualize the information gathered through the survey. This will also provide TAP the opportunity to gauge feasibility, interest, and barriers to implementing and participating in a farm to food bank project among producers.

The online producer survey offers respondents the opportunity to indicate their interest in focus group participation. Individuals can also contact the ISTC Technical Assistance Program to indicate interest in the focus groups, for additional information on the study, or for assistance with completion of the producer survey.

Graphic representation of the three data compilation elements, as described in the post text

Technical Assistance Program collaborates to connect surplus food with hunger relief agencies

The University of Illinois, Feeding Illinois, the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, and the Illinois Farm Bureau are collaborating to collect and collate information on the locations, types, and quantities of “surplus” specialty crops in Illinois, including potential acquisition costs. Through a producer survey, a series of focus groups, and implementation of pilots across the state the team looks to uncover the optimal mix of incentives and program interventions to overcome the current barriers to efficient flows of fresh food produced in Illinois, to Illinois residents, with as little waste as possible.

Wasted Food = Wasted Resources + Wasted Dollars + Wasted Nutrition

According to the second edition of the Natural Resources Defense Council report Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill, roughly two-fifths of the food we produce in our country goes uneaten for a variety of reasons, based on losses in the production, processing, distribution, and consumption stages of our food system. Beyond the food itself, this reality represents a huge loss of the resources invested in our nation’s food production–“food and agriculture consume up to 16 percent of US energy, almost half of all US land and account for 67 percent of the nation’s freshwater use.”

Image of NRDC "Wasted" report cover with a photo of a watermelon with a wedge removed.The loss is economic as well as environmental. NRDC estimates that over 400 pounds of food are wasted per person annually in the US, equivalent to “a loss of up to $218 billion each year, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually.”

The situation is made all the more tragic when considering that Feeding America estimated 14.3 million American households were food insecure with limited or uncertain access to enough food in 2018. “Food insecurity” refers to a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

In 2018, 1,283,550 people experienced food insecurity in Illinois.

Global Pandemic Makes a Bad Situation Worse

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues of food waste and hunger have become even more pronounced. In the wake of unemployment, medical bills and other unforeseen costs, many people have struggled to make ends meet. Simultaneously, our food supply chain scrambled to pivot to a world in which institutions and businesses involved with food service or food retail shut down as part of efforts to slow the spread of disease. As an example of the challenges this presented, some perishable goods like milk or meat may be produced and packaged in bulk specifically for large-scale customers such as restaurants. So, when those customers suddenly no longer exert their typical demands on the system, large quantities of commodities may spoil if new customers can’t be identified to absorb the available supply, or if the means for alternative packaging or distribution cannot be quickly realized. News reports featured stories of commodities without outlets being dumped or livestock euthanized and record-long lines at food banks. Feeding America estimates that due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 50 million people may experience food insecurity, including a potential 17 million children.

Farm to Food Bank Programs as Viable Solutions

Decreasing waste and increasing nutritional access are being addressed across the nation in various ways. One strategy for addressing these issues simultaneously is through Farm to Food Bank programs. “Farm to Food Bank” projects are defined in the Code of Federal Regulations [ at 7 CFR 251.10(j)] as “the harvesting, processing, packaging, or transportation of unharvested, unprocessed, or unpackaged commodities donated by agricultural producers, processors, or distributors for use by Emergency Feeding Organizations (EFOs)”–i.e., hunger relief agencies. Some existed long before pandemic-related restrictions rocked the nation’s food systems, since it is not uncommon for farmers to donate their surpluses to local hunger relief agencies. Existing programs have had to work hard to keep up with increased demand during the pandemic and expand where possible. Several new farm to food bank programs have been created over the past year in direct response to pandemic-related systemic pressures, as highlighted in a recent article for Civil Eats by Lynne Curry. Many of these are notable because they use donated funds to pay farmers fair market prices for commodities that would otherwise be wasted, or to cover other economic barriers to surplus redistribution (e.g. labor or transportation costs), creating interim markets as a stopgap response to disruptions caused by the pandemic.

One such program, The Farmlink Project, was launched in April 2020 by college students in response to the struggling they witnessed in their home communities after returning from their shut-down campuses. The project uses donated funds to pay for the packing of farm surplus and delivery to food distribution sites. Databases of interested farmers and nearby food banks are being built to enable efficient connections. Partnership with Food Finders, a food rescue organization, and Uber Freight allows logistical hurdles to be addressed by those with appropriate expertise. In the organization’s short life it has grown to involve more than 100 college and university students from across the country, serving all but five of the fifty United States, and has delivered over 22,000,000 pounds of food, according to the project website.

In New Mexico, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, began its Farm to Food Bank Project at the start of the pandemic, and reported in December 2020 that it had provided “more than 12,000 pounds of local, fresh produce–reaching thousands of community members in need.” AFSC uses donations to purchase “organic produce from 25 sustainable farms and distribute that food to Roadrunner Food Bank—the state’s largest food bank—as well as five shelters and food pantries that serve people who are homeless, domestic violence survivors, seniors, and immigrants.” They additionally supply “farmers with seeds and other farming materials, as well as safety items like face masks and gloves. In return, farms are providing a portion of the food they grow to local relief agencies.”

Some long-running programs have integrated various ways to address economic barriers for farmers. Operating since 2005, the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB) Farm to Family program offers a “pick and pack” fee to farmers to help mitigate harvesting and packaging costs. CAFB handles the logistics, transporting surplus food from farms to food banks throughout the state for redistribution. Participating farmers are also eligible for a 15% state tax credit.

With these and many other examples elsewhere in the nation, various stakeholders in Illinois are considering what lessons can be learned to determine how the farm to food bank concept could be applied to circumstances within our state.

Stakeholders Collaborate to Improve Food Security in Illinois

Even before the pandemic began, Illinois stakeholders were considering how to ensure more food would reach those in need through farm to food bank strategies. In early 2020, staff from Feeding Illinois and the Illinois Farm Bureau began discussions related to expansion of programs and opportunities for moving surplus food commodities to hunger relief agencies throughout the state. These agencies reached out to the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) to discuss the types of data and analyses needed to support such efforts. Plans began for a feasibility study, involving collaboration with the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, to expand and improve farm to food bank commodity flows. The study kicked off with a survey of participants at the annual Illinois Specialty Crops Conference in January 2021.

The overall outcomes of this project are being realized by meaningful collaboration between over two dozen organizations across Illinois. The feasibility study is being led by Feeding Illinois with support from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, the Illinois Farm Bureau, and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. ISTC’s TAP is spearheading data collection and analysis, as well as final report preparation.

Logos of Feeding Illinois, the IL Farm Bureau, the Specialty Crop Growers Association and the Prairie Research Institute

Project Objectives

The feasibility study will involve collection and collation of information on the locations, types, and quantities of “surplus” specialty crops in Illinois, including potential acquisition costs. Objectives include:

  • Provide producers with additional end markets for commodities
  • Identify the quantity and quality of surplus food in Illinois
  • Expand supply of fresh food to food banks
  • Increase food security
  • Reduce food loss and foster a statewide circular economy
  • Establish a sustainable farm to food bank program in Illinois

Study Components

In order to evaluate and devise effective strategies for expansion of farm to food bank programs within Illinois, the study team is evaluating what has worked as part of such programs in other states. Project staff are reviewing and reaching out to similar programs nationwide to compile best practices, key challenges, pinch points where material flows may slow down or stop due to a variety of factors, performance indicators, and key stakeholders to include in strategic planning.

Graphic representation of the study elements, as described in the text of the blog post

Simultaneously, the project team is taking a three-pronged approach to compile the data necessary to develop and assess the feasibility of strategies for a statewide farm to food bank program in Illinois.

Graphic representation of the three data compilation elements, as described in the post textThe first step is collecting feedback from Illinois producers on current conditions, challenges, opportunities, and past experiences via the aforementioned online survey, which was launched during a session presented at the virtual 2021 Illinois Specialty Crop Conference that took place in January. Conference attendees were encouraged to complete the survey during the conference and will receive electronic reminders from session coordinators. It includes questions on current practices, market channels, market alternatives, product marketability, and the farm-to-food-banks experience from the producer perspective. The survey will be open to Illinois producers until March 15th.

Additionally, virtual focus groups including producers, representatives of hunger relief agencies, and food distributors will be held, to supplement, validate, and contextualize the information gathered through the surveys. This will also provide TAP the opportunity to gauge feasibility, interest, and barriers to implementing and participating in a farm to food bank project among producers.

Survey respondents and focus group participants will have the opportunity to indicate interest in participating in future pilot studies of any new farm-to-food-bank strategies to address food insecurity identified as part of this overall feasibility study.

Finally, TAP will synthesize the findings from the surveys and focus groups to estimate the statewide supply of food commodities not currently entering the market. TAP will prepare a final report–essentially a roadmap for a statewide farm to food bank program–outlining the opportunity and feasibility (including both logistical and economic considerations) of implementing various farm to food bank project scenarios. The report will be made available online to inform Illinois producers and other stakeholders, and to assist with similar efforts in other states.

Participate

Illinois producers can support these efforts by completing our survey. It takes approximately 10 minutes to complete. If you prefer,  request to have a a hard copy of the survey mailed to you by contacting ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program.

For additional information, assistance with survey completion, or to express interest in participating in the forthcoming focus groups, please contact the ISTC Technical Assistance Program.

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