April 9, 2012

Gleaning programs a win-win

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets is offering "Fresh Connect" grants to benefit direct-market farmers and low-income populations.

The goal is to enable farmers to move more products while a needy segment of the community reaps the benefits of our local harvest. I'm certain that a multitude of proposals are being submitted from all over the state, many of them looking to start up new farmers markets in underserved areas. We're lucky that in the North Country we have many farmers markets to choose from.

I've spent much of the past week writing one of these grants and looking at the challenge from a different angle. It's a bit of a long shot, I'll admit, but if awarded, it will provide an opportunity to train food-pantry employees and volunteers in simple food-preservation techniques. Local perishable food could then be saved for distribution to clients in the off-season.

As a farmer myself, I have never looked at all the extra unharvested vegetables as "wasted food"; it's just compost waiting to happen, large bundles of nutrients waiting to be returned to the soil. But I also understand that it is potentially food to be shared with the rest of the community. The trouble with much of our local harvest, though, is that it's fairly perishable.

Why not just preserve all those excess tomatoes for the food pantries? Unfortunately, it's not as simple to preserve produce for donation as it sounds. Processing procedures must follow the same safety guidelines as any business looking to sell such goods as jams, pickles or canned tomatoes. A 20-C license is required for most preservation, and the procedures and recipes must be approved by the Food Venture Center in Geneva, N.Y. Commercial kitchens and proper equipment are needed — thus necessitating the grant — to help offset some of the licenses, fees, equipment and training workshops.

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