Field Trip: Haley, The Food Group

Our future is going to be BRIGHT.

We believe that whole-heartedly, especially after meeting young folks who are already taking huge strides to change the way our food system works. Like Haley, our favorite MN GreenCorps member and all around awesome human.

Haley has been working with the Food Group, a local food bank, for the past year helping to establish an on-site microfarm that produces upwards of a 100lbs of fresh produce a week for their food bank members. On top of growing for the farm, she coordinates volunteers, leads tours and hosts learning days for the community in the garden. As if that weren't enough, she also works as a Fruits of the City Coordinator and an Edible Landscape Consultant, overseeing Giving Gardens (swooon!).

As she wraps up her time with the Food Group, she'll also be embarking on a new adventure that we'll definitely be following along with on her blog. All in all, we can't really say enough good things about the work Haley is doing but we sure loved her to pieces and think you will too! Go Lady Power!!!

As a Minnesota GreenCorps member serving with the Food Group can you tell us what various hats you wear?

My main hat is Microfarm Coordinator, where I lead volunteer groups in harvest, educate visitors, and provide maintenance to keep the garden healthy. Another is Fruits of the City Coordinator, where I help match volunteer groups and orchards, organize a harvesting event, and bring the extra fruit to local food shelves. I’m also an Edible Landscape Consultant, making sure that the partner Giving Gardens we established this year are getting the education and support that they need to prosper. As of yesterday, my official AmeriCorps service has ended, and I gratefully have accepted a position with The Food Group working on these same projects through the end of the season.

What are you growing? And what methods?

On our “Microfarm” even though it is a smaller space, we are growing a wonderful variety of crops. We have a little bit of everything; lettuce, tomatoes, bush beans, sugar snap peas, tomatillos, strawberries, eggplant, okra, zucchini, cucumber, peppers, collards, kale, broccoli, swiss chard, kohlrabi, beets, carrots, onions, leeks, radishes... and a few pollinator-friendly flowers out front!

We have a newly constructed hoop house where our trellised tomatoes and squat peppers are happily prospering in their raised beds and warm environment. So far, we have been averaging over 100lbs of produce per week, harvested and donated directly to our food bank across the parking lot. Our growing methods are “organic”, although we are not certified. This is only the second year the land has been cultivated, and the lawn is trying it’s best to return and the bunnies have definitely snacked on our vegetables this season. It has been a series of learning lessons in natural controls, perseverance, and patience.

What are your favorite supply centers or resource shops?

For a small production operation like ours, whenever possible we try to utilize second-hand or recycled materials, and re-purpose old equipment. This year we even were able to start many of our crops from donated seeds! However, that’s not always possible. My favorite place to buy transplants is from the Friend School Plant Sale, which only takes place once a year on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. They have a huge variety of plants, many unique, and reasonable prices all from local growers. From fruit trees to seed potatoes, they have everything- but get there early because they sell out quickly. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is an employee owned company, and a great place to purchase seeds and tools from. Their products are easy to use and made with a farmer in mind, and they offer many heirloom varieties and even organic seeds. We purchased our beloved broad fork from them this year, and it has been a great device in cultivating the land without fossil fuels or disturbing soil microbes.

What are your most trusted sources for growing and farming?

I discover farming wisdom dispersed throughout my friends and community.

Local urban farmers, such as the folks at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm and Alissa Jacobsen at Hidden Willow Farm, have been a great resource for any questions I may have. They have been around the vegetable production block a time or two and know what’s what. The University of Minnesota Extension  has excellent garden advice, and a Master Gardener program to connect with local garden experts and enthusiasts. Another major source of knowledge comes from my personal research; I devour farming-related articles like juicy gossip. Field trips are always a great way to explore AND soon I will be leaving on a quest via WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to learn even more about small scale sustainable farming methods being used across the country.

What is food justice and what motivates you at such a young age to care about it?

During my studies as an undergraduate Environmental Studies student, I was searching for the most effective way to “Save the World”, like fellow optimistic youth. I eventually came to understand that food and agriculture are at the heart of many current world issues, including energy, poverty, politics, genetically modified organisms, food security, international trade, health care costs, climate change, and more.

I became engrossed in discovering these connections, decided that the current American food system was inherently flawed, and pledged my vocation toward educating others on understanding these connections and alleviating its negative effects by promoting food justice and supporting sustainable agriculture. It didn’t happen in one day, but I slowly realized that the most worthwhile career for me works toward a vision where everyone in a community has equal access and availability of nutritious sustainably raised foods.

It’s a simple vision, and the road is long and winding, but working with those who share my goal makes it enjoyable and achievable.

We think the biggest misconception is that food-shelves do not accept perishable donations, can you help us understand how fresh produce can enter into a food shelf and how do the Clients they serve access fresh produce?

It can certainly be misleading to know that food shelves accept perishable donations when most food drives request “non-perishable” items, but actually the most requested items by food shelf clients are milk, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables. These items are the most expensive for families and food shelves to purchase, but they are also integral to a well-balanced diet. This lack of access to fresh and healthy foods disproportionately affecting lower income populations is the basis for food justice, and the reason behind many recent fresh produce policies and healthy eating initiatives across the country.

At The Food Group, more fresh produce than ever is flowing through our doors thanks to our innovative programming. In addition to the vegetables we grow in our front yard on the Microfarm, we also rescue surplus produce from the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market every Sunday,  (sometimes gathering and donating up to 10,000lbs to local food shelves in one day) and our Fruits of the City program rescues fruit that would otherwise go to waste from backyard fruit trees and orchards, and shares them with those in need. Our Harvest For The Hungry programs partners with local businesses to purchase fresh vegetables from Minnesota and Western Wisconsin farmers, offering them a secondary market and providing families facing hunger with high quality local produce.

Additionally, many home gardeners do not know that they are protected legally when donating fresh produce to food shelves by the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. It encourages individuals to donate to non-profit organization for distribution for those in need, and protects you from liability when donating your veggies as long as “gross negligence” is not displayed (if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t share it). The message is, plant an extra row to drop off at your local food shelf!

Clients seeking produce can find food shelf locations using the Hunger Solutions and Ample Harvest maps, and these resources are also helpful for growers looking to donate- simply call ahead to be sure they can accommodate your crop.

What challenges have you faced in raising a hoop house this year in the burbs?

We came across the standard obstacles you face when undergoing construction; making sure all components are “up to code” according to city ordinances, making meetings with the city inspector who’s notoriously late... being sent the wrong parts and waiting for a new shipment.

Last November, when we had been optimistically planning to grow some late fall greens in the hoop house, we found out that we could not use concrete footings because it would classify as a “Permanent Structure” and had to dig 4ft deep holes in frozen soil to place long poles as footings instead. That was one of the worst days I’ve had on the farm. But it turned out to be worth it, because we are getting amazing tomato yields, and the hoop house has withstood over 70mph winds!

Can you help our readers understand what a food bank is and how this system works? (eg. food banks buys for the local shelves fresh produce)

A food bank is a non-profit organization that helps to provide nourishment to those facing hunger, but is different from a food shelf in that the items are not distributed onsite. Instead, the food bank purchases items in bulk for its food shelf partners, then delivers it to the smaller food shelf locations for distribution to clients. It’s similar to how banks store money, but people pull cash from an ATM.

Food banks make an an impact on food insecurity and provide aid in several ways; a stronger purchasing power, meaning they can get more food for less money, they have larger capacity for storage, usually an entire warehouse with refrigeration units, and they have ample infrastructure for agency support and special programming. The Food Group in particular is a special because of its fresh produce programs, culturally equity programs, healthy donation policies, and nutritional outreach programs.

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How can growers big and small donate to a food bank?

Home gardeners and community gardens are good candidates for donating to smaller local food shelves and pantries. It’s usually the perfect amount of intake for what is distributed during the week so that it won’t overload their facilities. For larger quantities from big growers, it’s better to donate to a food bank which has better storage capacity, operates on a larger scale, and can distribute equally among many smaller organizations so the produce reaches as many people as possible. If it’s donated for free rather than purchased, then it goes out for free, which means that some of the least accessible foods becomes more equally available to under-served populations.

What are your sources of strength and nourishment?

I find nourishment both physically and emotionally in growing food, and especially in cooking delicious vegetable-centric meals for loved ones. In times of stress, I bake endless goodies and share the treats with anyone closest to me, including strangers. I find joy in planting extra tomato plants in empty side-lots, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, dancing to The Big Chill Soundtrack, and playing banjo in the park while snacking on watermelon. I feel strongest when running fast, helping a friend, or during an adventure.