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Adding More to Everyone’s Plate

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, over 13.5 million households in the US were food insecure in 2021. That is over 10% of the country’s population that was uncertain about or unable to acquire food at some point in the year. Yet, despite the number of foodinsecure people in the United States alone, more than 15% of the world’s produced food is wasted every year—and not all of that is food that’s thrown away at home. In fact, a lot of the food produced by farms each year never makes it to the stores—often due to market conditions, the size, or the appearance of the product. 

With so much food never making it to market, the everyday person might wonder where that food goes if it doesn’t feed people. It would be sad to waste food if it is still perfectly edible. That’s where food banks come in.

I spoke with Heidi Coe and Samantha Solberg of the food bank Second Harvest Heartland (Brooklyn Park, MN), Nikki Warner of the food hub The Good Acre (Falcon Heights, MN), Bjorn Solberg of organic produce marketer Hugh’s Gardens (Halstad, MN), and Kramer Stuth and Jared Slinde of the Great Plains Food Bank (Fargo, ND) to discuss what their roles are in getting locally grown produce to the tables of those in need. We also discussed how the hunger relief system works, what happens to the food during the donation process, and why it might be beneficial for you, as a grower, to donate produce to their organizations. 

The Hunger Relief System

Second Harvest Heartland’s donated produce includes a variety of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, like lettuce, apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, and more! | Photo provided by Second Harvest Heartland

In speaking to a variety of sources, I came to see just how complex the hunger relief system can be. Food banks, food hubs, distributors, and food pantries/shelves all operate in different ways to help get the food distributed to food-insecure households, and each has a different relationship with local, regional, and even national growers

Despite the common view that donated food is mediocre, Second Harvest’s donated produce is always of high quality, like the tomatoes seen here. | Photo provided by Second Harvest Heartland

At the top of the distribution chain are food banks. As Heidi Coe, produce sourcing specialist at Second Harvest Heartland, describes it, “You can picture the food bank as the warehouse or the distributor. We bring in millions and millions of pounds [of produce] that are distributed out to our agency partners, [the food shelves]. [Those food shelves] are where the people go to get the food.” These food banks are typically the ones working directly with the growers to bring in large amounts of produce to distribute across their region.

Food banks are also often responsible for a huge service area, and the Great Plains Food Bank (GPFB) happens to service the entire state of North Dakota along with Clay County in Minnesota. Kramer Stuth, logistics manager at GPFB, said of the food bank, “We have a very large service area of over 70,000 square miles. That presents us a very unique opportunity to be able to serve our clients because we have the city areas of Fargo and Bismarck to serve, but we also have the rural areas and neighbors to serve as well. We have very diverse areas that we serve.” Food banks are just the beginning of distribution to the people in our communities, though.

Food hubs are another part of getting fresh produce to food pantries. They work a little differently than a food bank, and usually on a smaller scale. According to Nikki Warner, communications director at The Good Acre, these hubs are focused on getting farmers’ products to people and places that can distribute them. 

“The USDA definition of a food hub is basically ‘an aggregator that handles marketing, logistics, and aggregates products of the farm to meet the demand of larger wholesale buyers,’” Warner said. In addition to the typical food hub responsibilities, The Good Acre is also “focused on market expansion and technical assistance, like one-on-one grower support.” 

Produce marketers like Hugh’s Gardens are often the middlemen in the farm-to-food bank food chains. Bjorn Solberg, the owner of Hugh’s Gardens, described his process as a produce marketer to me

“We have two farmers currently that grow the potatoes and then haul them to us. From then on, we’re in charge of storage, washing, packaging, and marketing. I market at a wholesale level, so I sell mostly to distributors in the cities, but some are also sold directly to schools and directly to consumers through the Red River Harvest Cooperative,” he said. 

Facilities like Hugh’s Gardens help to bring the products to market more smoothly, which also includes sorting produce that may not do well in the market and sending it to food banks to minimize food waste and help food banks provide more produce.

At the local level, food banks like Second Harvest Heartland and the Great Plains Food Bank provide their sourced produce to local food shelves or food pantries for consumers. All of the work that food banks, food hubs, and marketers do for hunger relief culminates at the food shelf

The Food Donation Process

When speaking to those involved in the food donation process, a common thread that came up was that these food banks will take any amount of edible produce that a person could provide, whether it’s a bag full or a semi-truck full.

Stuth noted that with North Dakota’s Hunger Free ND Garden Project—a project that asks local gardeners and farmers to plant an extra row or acre of produce with the goal to donate the high-quality product to the hunger relief system—the food bank has been able to source even more produce.

“That [produce] comes from a variety of different types of growers,” Stuth said. “It could be somebody that just has produce from the store or is growing some tomatoes in their backyard or something along those lines, all the way up to a full-fledged farmer that has acres upon acres of potatoes or onions that they’re planting.”

Coe added that, instead of bringing every single donation to the Second Harvest donation center, sometimes those small donations go straight to the food shelves that need them in the donor’s area.

“If we do get a call from a grower who’s got a smaller amount [of produce], it would cost a lot to bring that to the distribution center. In that situation, I connect them with their local food shelf,” she said.

Once the food bank gets the food, they move it out as quickly as they can so that none of the produce goes to waste. 

“We store it very well, and we like to turn it over quickly,” Coe said. “We don’t like to call ourselves a warehouse because we’re not warehousing food, we are just distributing. We bring it in, then immediately move it out. Our food shelves and other partners order the produce, and then within two to four days, we move that product out to them.”

Stuth agreed, saying that “as soon as we pick it up, it’s going to be out of our warehouse within less than a month depending on what type of product it is and how long it can be safely stored.”

With the quick turnaround time for distribution, and the food banks’ willingness to take in any amount of produce, it becomes a lot easier to see the benefit of donating.

The Good Acre’s top-quality crops from local farmers of color and emerging farmers provide a much-needed diversity in donated produce, while still producing staples of the Midwest like potatoes and onions. | Photo by TJ Turner

Why a Grower Should Partner with a Food Bank or Food Shelf

Despite the surplus of edible food, some growers do not consider food banks, hubs, shelves, and pantries to get their produce to tables. However, when a grower partners with a food bank or a food shelf, it doesn’t only help the person receiving the food. 

A big part of the appeal of a partnership with a food bank is cutting down on food waste. No grower spends so much time in the field and then is content when they cannot get it to people’s tables. A common theme when I spoke with those involved with food donation was how partnerships with food banks help not only utilize the unsaleable produce, but cut down on how much unsaleable produce the farmers have to figure out what to do with. 

“It’s really beneficial for helping us limit the amount of waste that we need to be getting rid of, and helps turn it into a benefit and getting it into the right people’s hands,” Solberg said. 

To help counteract the potential costs of donation, most food banks will pick up the produce at the farm and haul it to the distribution warehouse, cutting down on the grower’s transportation costs significantly.

On this point, Stuth said, “We have three semi-truck drivers that cover the whole state of North Dakota. We’re constantly out and about throughout the state. If you’re a donor that’s out in western North Dakota and wants to donate some product, we will have a truck out in that area at least once a month, so we’ll be able to coordinate a pick-up then. If it’s something that is a little bit more urgent to pick up, we can always send out trucks for special trips.”

An added benefit to the partnership that has come about in more recent years, food banks in many areas are now receiving funding (or designating funding) to reimburse those who donate produce. The USDA and state departments of agriculture have been allocating more funding to food banks to spend on locally produced food, which includes locally grown produce. Each state is different in regard to what the money can be used for, but funding is either used to outright purchase produce from growers or to reimburse the costs associated with donating. In Minnesota, they are able to provide reimbursements through the Farm to Food Shelf grant. 

“We’re pretty clear about how we don’t purchase produce—it is donated, and we reimburse the growers,” Coe said. “We call it PPO, which stands for Pick and Pack Out. It means we’re reimbursing for some of the labor costs and some of the packaging costs, but not all of it. We have a sheet with rates for the different produce types and how they’re packaged.” 

“It’s really beneficial for helping us limit the amount of waste that we need to be getting rid of, and helps turn it into a benefit and getting it into the right people's hands.”
Bjorn Solberg
Owner of Hugh's Gardens

“It’s really beneficial for helping us limit the amount of waste that we need to be getting rid of, and helps turn it into a benefit and getting it into the right people’s hands,” Solberg said. 

Second Harvest also sets aside its own funding to purchase directly from farmers of color who provide more unique crops that support the diverse culture of the Twin Cities area and beyond. This is where their partnership with The Good Acre comes into play. 

“Second Harvest pays market rate for [produce from our BIPOC farmers]. Wholesale market prices—fair wholesale prices that we agree upon, usually at the beginning of the season,” Warner said. “We don’t donate produce to Second Harvest Heartland because our values align, and they want to make sure that they are creating market opportunities for BIPOC farmers as part of their values around addressing the hunger divide.”

In North Dakota, the funding for the Great Plains Food Bank from the Department of Agriculture can be used for all kinds of locally grown or produced foods, but a large portion of the funds are being spent buying directly from growers in the state. Right now, they are only in the second quarter of grant funding—but they’ve already started building strong connections with local growers.

“Being able to source local product to put money back into the economy, but to also have those main food staples at no cost for our partners and for people that actually need it, has been wonderful.”
Kramer Stuth
Logistics Manager at the Great Plains Food Bank

“This has been a fantastic partnership with the Department of Ag, as well as with the growers and producers, because we’re able to bring in local, fresh products and distribute that throughout our network of partners at no cost to them,” Stuth said. “Being able to source local product to put money back into the economy, but to also have those main food staples at no cost for our partners and for people that actually need it, has been wonderful.”

Along with the funding directly from food banks, some growers might receive additional benefits via their taxes. Though the organizations I spoke with are not able to give tax advice—and neither am I—a few brought up the potential for tax breaks or write-offs. With any charitable donation, there are potential tax benefits that come with it. However, all of the people I talked to noted that when a farmer donates, they should talk to their accountant about what potential benefits it could have tax-wise. 

Ultimately, though, many people just want to donate because it feels good to help those in need. Jared Slinde, communications manager at the Great Plains Food Bank, said it best.

“I think that all our food donors are going to do it because they’re driven to give, and they feel a responsibility to help out and feed those in need. That’s why organizations like ours even exist,” Slinde said. “It’s not the work that we do here, it’s the people who are donating that make our work distributing this food to our hungry neighbors possible. The biggest thing is that they feel like it’s the right thing to do, and they’re getting tons of satisfaction from it, which is what philanthropy is all about.” 

Interested in Donating Produce?

Contact Kramer Stuth at the Great Plains Food Bank at [email protected] or visit the website at

Contact Heidi Coe at Second Harvest Heartland at [email protected] or visit the website at

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