The numbers are staggering. Since 1990, produce growers and shippers in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys on California’s Central Coast have donated more than 115 millions pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits to food banks throughout not only California, but in six Western states.

That equates to more than 3,300 35,000-pound truckloads of fresh produce.

Literally millions have received free fresh, nutritious food from one of the richest agricultural valleys in the world donated annually by more than 50 grower-packers.

Before Ag Against Hunger was formed 15 years ago, produce like that now feeding masses was dumped because there was no organization to effectively collect, store and sort in cold storage and distribute the huge volume of fresh produce to community food banks.

Food banks survive on food donations, but none can accommodate the volume generated by packer shippers in the fertile valleys surrounding Salinas, Calif., and Watsonville, Calif. This is where Ag Against Hunger found its niche. It is the only non-profit program of its type in the U.S.

Vegetable and strawberry growing and processing is high volume, rapid turn around agriculture. Salinas Valley and other coastal area vegetable growers generate massive amounts of fresh produce each day. It all must be stored in cold storage before shipping. When cold storage facilities become full, something must be moved out to make room for incoming product. It may be only 2-3 days from the field, but it must be removed from cold storage to make room for fresher product coming from the fields.

"This is not out-of-date produce," said Ag Against Hunger board member and former University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor John Inman of Salinas. "This is all good, nutritious food that is going to feed people in need. Now much of what we receive is bagged salads and other bagged produce."

Long shelf life

Most bagged salads have two-week retail shelf pull dates which is why Ag Against Hunger gets so much of it. "Bags keep the produce very fresh and that really benefits our program." said Inman.

Supermarkets demand as many days until pull date as possible when the bagged product arrives at the store and shippers want to ship the freshest possible to their customers. It may be only a day’s difference between what Ag Against Hunger gets and what is put on a truck destined for the East Coast.

Inman explained that vegetables like lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower are planted to meet specific scheduled harvest dates to meet marketing requirements. "Growers must pick so much per day to supply salad plants and contracted buyers of bulk produce. If it does not move out of cold storage right away, there is more coming behind it. Grower shippers want to ship the freshest they have to their customers and what came in yesterday may go to Ag Against Hunger today because it has been replaced by fresher product in cold storage.

"In a perfect world, there would be no product for Ag Against Hunger, but produce growing and packing is not a perfect world," said Inman.

Ag Against Hunger’s two trucks make daily rounds of grower shippers in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys from April to November, according to program executive director Bernadette O’Keefe who has been in her job since 1998.

"We used to call up the grower-shippers and asked if they had anything. We stopped doing that five years ago. People now call us when they have something because they know we provide a service to the industry by taking surplus product and they are happy to provide this food for food banks," said O’Keefe "We promise to pick up the product within 24 hours of when they call, and we take all they offer."

The large semi-truck and trailer the program operates is not unlike the large commercial trucks that lumber the streets of the cities in the coastal valleys during the summer picking up produce to deliver to consumers in the U.S. and the world.

Loading system

"There is a system of loading trucks here and the people in the Ag Against Hunger program know how the system works. We are no different than the commercial trucks you see around the cold storage facilities."

Local food banks are not equipped to pick up the quantity growers-shippers want picked up.

"We pick up 25 pallets of produce where a food bank may be capable of picking up only 25 boxes or at most 10 pallets at a time," said Inman.

Also 25 pallets may all be bagged lettuce from one packer and 25 pallets of broccoli from another. Food banks cannot handle that much of a single fresh product. As an aggregator with cold storage, Ag Against Hunger can offer produce variety lots to the food banks either in a few boxes; mixed pallets or mixed trailer loads.

But O’Keefe tells her "customers" they have to take what Ag Against Hunger has to offer. With the strawberries, bagged salads and broccoli also goes the cilantro.

Ag Against Hunter rents 8,300-square feet of cold storage from Ocean Mist in Castroville, Calif., at a significantly discounted rate. "The agreement we have had with Ocean Mist for the last couple of years has worked well, but we may have to look at a more permanent arrangement in the future," said O’Keefe. Cheap cold storage space for the program may become scarce as available commercial cold storage space becomes tight.

"We serve four local food banks first," said O’Keefe. These food banks in turn supply shelters, meals on wheels, group homes, rehab center and soup kitchens.

Four local food banks take about 3.5 to 4 million pounds during the season. The California Emergency Food Link in Sacramento picks up another 5 million pounds for distribution to 50 food banks throughout California. The rest is picked up by trucks for food banks in Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico at a summertime rate of five truckloads per week.

Feeds millions

"We know we provide food for 175,000 people here in our immediate areas, but the food we provide in partnership with local growers-shippers literally feeds millions in other areas of California and throughout the West," said O’Keefe.

Ag Against Hunger’s annual budget is about $350,000, most all raised locally, contributed largely by the grower-shippers who provide the food. Out of state food banks defray some expenses by paying an "administrative" fee to Ag Against Hunger.

There are five on staff at the program; two full-time; one part-time two seasonal, said O’Keefe. A board of directors oversees the non-profit organization.

Volume drops off dramatically during the winter months when the nation’s produce industry shifts to the deserts of Arizona and California. However, Ag Against Hunger does not completely close down. It scales back and serves only local food banks with produce trucked into the Salinas Valley from the desert growing area of Southern California and Southwest Arizona.

Many of the Salinas grower-shippers also operate in Yuma Valley in Arizona and Imperial Valley California. For many years they dismantled processing and salad plants in Salinas each fall and trucked them to the desert to be put back together to operate there.

Some of the bigger packers have stopped doing that because it has become so complicated, said Inman. Many now bring raw product from the desert to be processed in Salinas, mostly in bagged products and shipped back to Yuma for loading on trucks to retail and wholesale outlets.

"We have been working with KLM Trucking to bring two loads a week to us from the desert for distribution to the local food banks," said O’Keefe.

"We basically shut down in the winter except for the desert produce, but there are companies which operate year-round here like Monterey Mushroom, one of our suppliers, and we are thinking about staying open year-round" and providing product beyond local food bank needs, said O’Keefe.

Model of efficiency

Ag Against Hunger has become a model for efficient distribution of massive supplies of perishable food to local food banks.

O’Keefe is working with others to establish similar operations in several other parts of the state. However, that may be a logistical challenge not faced by the Salinas-based program.

"Our trucks based at Ocean Mist pick up everything we handle within a 50-mile radius of Castroville. That is an ideal situation for what we are doing. It may not be so ideal in other parts of the state," she said. Nevertheless, she is excited about the challenge of trying to duplicate Ag Against Hunger elsewhere in California in conjunction with local ag industries.

Ag industries do not want to dump surplus commodities. They would rather donate to food banks and others in need and it has been proven by Ag Against Hunter that it can be done.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com