Student-led project helps feed community

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 108 views 

FAYETTEVILLE – What started in part as a college project turned into a program that helped feed a community in need this summer.

Megan Lankford, a University of Arkansas horticulture major, along with Alyssa Snyder and Aron Shelton, co-founded Seeds that Feed, a group that has distributed almost 13,000 pounds of fresh produce since April to people in need.

Seeds that Feed collects donations of fresh produce from patrons at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market and from the farmers themselves and gives it to pantries and other places that help people obtain food.

“This is not just a school project for me,” said Lankford. “Food insecurity is an issue in our area. You don’t think about it because when you drive around our area you see a lot of affluence.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released this month ranked Arkansas, along with Mississippi, at the top of food-insecure households, based on data gathered in 2011.

The USDA’s Household Food Security report showed 14.9% of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year.

In the state-by-state breakdown, Arkansas landed on top of the unfortunate heap, showing 19.2% of the state’s households were food insecure, well above the national average. The severe range – homes with very low food security – was 7.6% in Arkansas. The national average of homes with very low food security was 5.7%.

Additional statistics direct special concern to Washington County. Data shows 26.4% of children in Washington County – almost 13,000 kids – were food insecure in 2010, according to Feeding America

Snyder said she and Shelton began talking two years ago about how they could help hungry families in the area.

“We were shocked by the hunger statistics of Northwest Arkansas and Washington County,” Snyder said. “From there, there’s the realization that when you do visit a food pantry, there’s nothing fresh.”

Last year, Lankford began discussing food security with Dr. Curt R. Rom, UA professor of horticulture and director of the Bumpers College Honors Program, and decided to work on ways to get fresh produce to people who need it as her capstone project.

Her initial idea was “gleaning,” a labor-intensive process in which workers gather any leftover vegetables or fruit not harvested by the farmers. While gleaning is a sound option at large farms, Rom advised that most farms in Northwest Arkansas are too small to make it viable here. So her idea progressed to seek donations from farmers, either by asking them to grow an extra plant or row to donate, or by asking for leftover produce.

Lankford said Rom directed her to Feed Fayetteville, an organization that seeks to supply pantries and coordinate hunger-relief efforts, to help her understand the community’s needs and how best to get her idea going. Feed Fayetteville members put her in touch with Snyder and Shelton.

Together, the three of them birthed the effort that became Seeds that Feed and spawned the term “CareCropping.”

“Seeds that Feed is our name. CareCropping is what we do,” said coordinator Margaret Thomas.
The results have been “unexpectedly awesome,” Snyder said. “It has surpassed any of our expectations. We threw out a number – ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could collect 10,000 pounds of food?’ We passed that!”

With the almost 13,000 pounds of produce collected, Seeds that Feed has worked with Feed Fayetteville to supply more than 12 pantries and eight other programs with fresh food this summer. They recently also added a nursery school program to the list.

“I don’t think any of us had any idea we would be where we are now. We’ve exceeded our goal. We’re blown away by the generosity of the farmers,” Lankford said.

“I have donated to that program many times,” said Lola Baughman of Farmington, owner of Charlie’s Vegetables. “I don’t want food to go to waste that I worked hard to raise. If someone’s hungry, I’d much rather it go to them than be thrown away.”

Va Vue of Lincoln said she often donates leftover produce and sometimes brings her “seconds,” good quality produce that may not look smooth or pretty and doesn’t sell as well, to donate.

“Whatever I get – tomatoes, sweet onions, corn – I just try to support and help people,” Vue said.

Lankford said a farmer told her that she kept hitting her snooze button one morning but eventually got up and came to market because she knew whatever eggplant didn’t sell she could donate to Seeds that Feed and it wouldn’t go to waste.

“It makes me feel humbled and appreciative of the farmers. They’re the ones who are out there putting their blood, sweat, and tears into the food and then have that in their heart to give it away to people,” Lankford said. The generosity is more impactful because of the summer drought, which made raising successful crops more difficult, she added.

Snyder said many Farmer’s Market shoppers buy extra produce and donate it to the project, but the bulk of it still comes from the farmers themselves.

“The farmers are making this happen,” Snyder said.

“I think it’s a good program and I like to support it,” said Janet Bachmann, owner of Riverbend Gardens. “It’s better to donate than compost it. I appreciate those young women donating their time,” she said, speaking of Snyder, Thomas, Lankford, and other Seeds that Feed volunteers who regularly seek donations at the market.

“Along with Feed Fayetteville, we’ve put together the program we have now, gleaning the Farmers Market,” Lankford said.

“We help them,” said Feed Fayetteville director Adrienne Shaunfield, explaining the relationship between Seeds that Feed and Feed Fayetteville. “They’re amazing people. We are the umbrella organization that supports them and we can give farmers a tax write-off.”

Denise and Hershey Garner started Feed Fayetteville in 2011, Shaunfield said, after learning about the high rate of food insecurity among children in Washington County.

Feed Fayetteville seeks to alleviate hunger by focusing on nutrition and supporting the local food economy, Shaunfield said. CareCropping at the Farmers’ Market and through SNAP Garden Outreach helps them do that. (SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called Food Stamps.)

“We want to empower people to improve their nutrition,” Shaunfield said. “We try to get some healthy food into people who need it.”

Shaunfield said Feed Fayetteville works with all pantries in Fayetteville, as well as one pantry each in Springdale and Rogers, some preschools, Meals on Wheels, and provides produce to several churches that do community meals.

“The goal of Feed Fayetteville is to create partnerships and to feed Fayetteville,” Shaunfield said. “We want to help everybody work together as sustainably as possible.”

Seeds that Feed members hope to gather donations through November.

Among the farmers who donate is Michael Crane of Dripping Springs Gardens, south of Berryville. He donates produce to other organizations, as well.

“We just hope the people who receive it are utilizing it,” Crane said.

Snyder said education plays a key role in that.

She said they ask pantry workers if recipients know how to use the produce they bring. Based on the feedback, they provide easy recipes from the University of Arkansas and the SNAP education website to help people use what’s donated.

“A lot of food from food banks goes bad because people don’t know how to use it,” Lankford said.

For her college honors project, Lankford plans to research what happens to food after it’s donated and to find ways to make sure that fresh food sent home with people is not wasted. She’s gaining a lot of real-world experience through Seeds that Feed.

In addition to providing recipes, Lankford said they also plan to try to set up cooking demonstrations at pantries.

In July, the group helped prepare the monthly community meal served by Trinity United Methodist Church and Tri Cycle Farms. More than 100 people showed up.

After the meal, recipients could take home recipes of the foods that were served. People could also come before the meal to learn and assist in the cooking.

“The cooking classes are something new,” Lankford said, and something from which she’s benefited. “I had no idea how to take the bitterness out of eggplant.”

The group also set up a market in the church’s basement so people could take fresh produce  home. People were excited, Snyder said. “They were so appreciative.”

Snyder later got an e-mail from a single mother who has a job but still struggles to make ends meet. The take-home produce helped her and her child have enough food to make it through the week.

“Anyone can fall on hard times,” Thomas said.

Shaunfield said she hopes the sharing doesn’t end with this fall’s harvest.

The partners recently canned 75 jars of summer squash to give to pantries. Using food from their CareCropping efforts, they plan to continue to put up produce for later use by holding canning parties the third Tuesdays of each month this fall from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville.

Knowledgeable volunteers will teach how to can and dehydrate foods, another educational effort to ensure food’s not wasted.

“Anyone can come,” Shaunfield said. “It’s really a great mix of people.”