Last year, a group of some 950 summertime visitors gained a special kind of reward from a special trip to the Northern Neck. They weren’t on vacation. They came to work, specifically to help with an annual harvest of vegetables. They weren’t farm workers, not even gardeners. All were volunteer workers, willing and ready to assist local volunteers with a harvest organized for a grand reason and on a grand scale.
In this area of rural Virginia, they found scores of farm fields full of vegetables waiting to be picked. Some acreage had been set aside by the farmers to grow vegetables for the exclusive benefit of the Northern Neck Food Bank (NNFB). Other fields were available for “gleaning”—collecting the produce that remained in the field after the grower’s commercial harvest was done. The eventual recipients of all this goodness were the individuals and families who depend on local food pantries, mostly at area churches, for their needs. People helping people—surely the main focus of any food bank and most definitely the motivation of these volunteers.
The original mission of the NNFB did not include an agricultural program. As planned by the director, Lance Barton, the organization was formed to be a supplemental distribution company, assisting food pantries with transportation and warehousing of food. The food bank would be a connecting link between the regional food supplier (Richmond-based Central Virginia Food Bank,
now FeedMore/CVFB) and food pantries in the Northern Neck and Middlesex County. Lance had been running one of those pantries for several years. He was familiar with the challenges of the food supply chain.
The formation of the NNFB solved the problems of access, transportation, and warehousing, ensuring a consistent supply of food for the people who came to the pantries. The farm program would enhance that supply, offering a way to improve clients’ health. A data-base questionnaire had revealed that in nearly a third of the households served by the food bank, a family member had Type I or Type II diabetes. The emphasis shifted from “enough” food to “better” food. A sufficient amount of food would alleviate hunger, but only the right kind of food would promote health, and this became the overriding dictate for the organization. “We wanted to
offer nutritional choices to build healthy bodies and minds,” said Lance.
Nutrition was the new catchword for the food bank and its partner pantries, and to that end, local farms were solicited for help. The farmers were more than willing to take part, granting permission for the food bank to glean acres of crops. There’s always a good amount of produce left in the field after the initial harvest—perhaps as much as 25 percent. It may not be the right size for commercial markets, but it is no less edible. Without gleaning, the after-harvest produce would be plowed back into the ground. Thus the agricultural program was launched.
“The first year, before gleaning, we got 25,000 pounds of produce from donations. The next year, we included some gleaning and it was 50,000, and later it doubled again. We realized we could do more than just collect leftovers,” said Lance. “We offered to pay farmers to grow produce specifically for the food bank. The farmers agreed to grow the crops (currently 35 acres), but most refused the payment. This year, we will handle over 700,000 pounds of fresh produce.”
Parker Farms has been involved with food banks for over 25 years. “We do gleaning, plus we donate out of our inventory,” said Rod Parker. “Gleaning’s best—the produce goes from picking to pantries. And when a farmer plants a crop, he wants the food to be used; he doesn’t want to see it go to waste. It takes a lot of coordination to make it happen.”
The gleaning process is outlined in Scripture, and many of the food bank’s gleaners are volunteers on a mission. “Most don’t know what to do,” said Rod, “so it takes some coaching, but a lot of satisfaction comes from gleaning. Everybody gets blessed: the farmers, the gleaners, and the receivers.”
What would have been a prohibitive expense for the food bank—the actual harvesting—was resolved by Mike and Melissa Gainor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford. Each year, the couple recruits hundreds of volunteers for a week of working in the fields. The trip is described as a form of mission service, and for everyone, it is also a learning experience on many levels. Many of the volunteers have never been on a farm much less done any farm work. Besides the health benefits of fresh air and physical labor, the sense of accomplishment and service is a real plus.
“It’s an easy thing to do and a good thing to get involved with,” says Rod Parker. “Nothing works without the volunteers.” People helping people.
Altogether, the farm program is a winning situation for everyone involved, with the food bank perhaps gaining a bonus win. So much produce is collected that the NNFB is able to share the bounty.
“In summer, we pick more produce than we can use or distribute locally,” said Lance. “We send the excess to FeedMore/CVFB to distribute to other food banks in the area. In return, we are able to get produce from FeedMore in the winter months, through the food bank network.” The nutrition doesn’t stop in the off season.
Everyone connected to the food bank is rightfully proud of its achievements. Its success now motivates other groups to adopt similar programs. “We’ve caught the attention of food banks across the country,” said Lance. “They’re looking for new ways to improve the nutritional quality of the food they receive (and distribute).”
Recently, Lance was invited to speak to Feeding America, the parent company for 205 food banks and the largest hunger-relief organization in the country. While the venue was intimidating, it was a good opportunity to stress that food quality is as important as food quantity, if not more so. “What our food bank has been able to accomplish in this small section of rural Virginia could have a positive impact on the sourcing program of an organization that feeds millions of Americans. For me, it’s great to be able to talk to people about our successes. But while I may tell the story, 1500 people help to make it work, and the credit goes to them all.”
The NNFB’s original mission has expanded beyond transportation and beyond the farm program. It has been designated by FeedMore/CVFB to be the distribution point for six counties: Westmoreland, Northumberland, Richmond, Lancaster, Essex, and Middlesex. An allocation system is in place that dictates the quantity and quality of the food that is distributed. Everyone receives 40 percent fresh produce, 40 percent canned goods and dry staples, 10 percent meat, and 10 percent dairy or bakery items. Through 28 food pantries (churches and other nonprofits), the NNFB supplies food for over 6200 people each month.
As important as the organization’s development has been, another story may be even more significant. “We’re helping to change people’s eating habits,” said Lance. “When Mom is regularly serving broccoli, potatoes, collards, or whatever is fresh, that starts a lifetime of good, healthy eating habits, because children grow up with those foods as part of a normal way to eat.” People helping people.
The Northern Neck Food Bank is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by grants and foundations; local businesses and churches; and individual donations. Its donor list shows the extent of the community’s involvement.
Donations can be made through the website at www.nnfb.org or by mail:
Northern Neck Food Bank
P.O. Box 735
Warsaw VA 22572