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Finding a home for food waste in Rochester and compensation for its growers

The executive director of the Village Agricultural Cooperative is looking to cooperate with local food rescue organizations along with the local food bank to pay farmers market vendors for leftover produce.

2746455+Food Waste GgWink iStock.jpg
Food waste. GgWink/iStockphoto.com
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Food waste at farmers markets in Rochester is an issue that could be solved through better communication and coordination, according to Amanda Nigon-Crowley, executive director of the Village Agricultural Cooperative.

Most aspects of the inaugural year of the Village Farmers Market were a success, said Nigon-Crowley, except for the fact there was food waste after some markets.

"The part I don't see successful is that we had food waste," said Nigon-Crowley of the Village Farmers Market, which ran every Tuesday from July 26 through October in a park shelter behind the History Center of Olmsted County building. "Just finding out that there was food waste, and that's something that now I want to help set up some systems for next year so that we don't have that anymore.”

Food waste is an issue that not only farmers deal with on a regular basis, but farmers market vendors who are left with produce that didn’t sell during market hours.

When Nigon-Crowley saw there was food waste at the Village Farmers Market, she reached out to one of the several food rescue operations in southeast Minnesota, who told her that they didn't have the capacity to rescue the leftovers from the market, which Nigon-Crowley said was only a few bushels of food.

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So Nigon-Crowely reached out to Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, to see if they could pick up the food waste. She said she’s now considering writing a grant for Channel One to pay Village farmers for the leftover food they collect from them.

"There needs to be a conversation between all of us, and probably some better organizing and grant writing done, so that farmers can get paid and the food can get rescued," said Nigon-Crowley. "It's one of those things that I don't think anybody thinks is their responsibility." She added that she's not sure where Channel One stands on paying farmers for food waste.

Jessica Sund, director of development and communications with Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, said at the moment, they do not pick up food from local farmers markets.

“That’s something we used to do, and actually we used to have a staff member that was able to go on Saturdays and collect food (from the Rochester farmers market),” said Sund. “We have since lost capacity to staff that, unfortunately, but we still 100% accept food from local growers.”

Sund said that Channel One is working on filling and “reestablishing” the position, but right now, if vendors have leftover produce, they would have to bring it to Channel One themselves.

If food is rescued in Olmsted County and donated to Channel One, it is distributed to the local community, said Sund.

“All of the food rescue that happens in Rochester and Olmsted County stays in Olmsted County, so that food would actually just be received, weighed, and then just put directly on our food shelf for people to take right away,” said Sund.

As to whether Channel One would compensate farmers for leftover produce donated to the food bank, Sund said “probably not.”

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“Governments always like to supplement farmers as much as they can, and so a lot of the times when we do get USDA food, it's the government working with local growers to help them by purchasing the food, and then in turn, get it to us,” said Sund. “So in a roundabout way, that could happen, but not directly from Channel One.”

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said he toured Second Harvest Heartland in October, which has in place a state-funded program called Farm to Food Shelf, which offers local farmers the opportunity to donate excess produce to area food shelves. By offsetting a portion of harvesting, packaging and transportation costs, the program makes it easier for Minnesota growers to donate surplus crops that would otherwise go unharvested or be discarded.

“Farmers with a lot of extra waste have an option, and they can get payment for transportation and packaging to Second Harvest Heartland,” said Petersen.

He said the idea to compensate farmers for hauling food waste was around long before the program became a reality. Petersen calls the program a win for both farmers and food banks, which can offer more locally grown products like potatoes, corn and carrots to food insecure people.

“When selling at farmers markets and in all agriculture, margins can be really tight,” said Petersen. “Taking stuff to the food bank and packaging it costs money, so unfortunately it’s cheaper for them to just dump, compost it.”

Petersen said that since Channel One gets some products from Second Harvest Heartland, there’s probably some donated produce which farmers were compensated for making its way to southeast Minnesota.

Sund said that the issue of food rescue is on the minds of staff at Channel One.

“Food shelves and food banks on a local level are doing all that they can to rescue food,” she said. “So it's definitely something that is gaining in popularity and something that I know that Channel One wants to, even though we do a great job, something that we want to do better.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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