TRAVERSE CITY — Fresh Food Partnership will cease operations at the close of the growing season in a move that will impact food pantries and the region’s small farmers.
For 12 years, the nonprofit bought fresh fruit and vegetables from small, local farmers at fair market value and distributed it to food pantries in the five-county area.
“It’s not make or break, but it is significant,” said Reid Johnston of Second Spring Farm in Cedar. “It really is an unfortunate thing because it’s such a great program, getting twice the benefit out of each dollar they spend. It’s too bad.”
Fresh Food paid area farmers more than $300,000 for nearly half a million pounds of food since 2006, said Program Coordinator Karen Fulkerson. Fresh Food is operated under the umbrella of Land Information Access Association, a nonprofit that works to enhance land use and operates UpNorth Media public access TV.
“The board for LIAA made a decision, a tough decision, that Fresh Food Partnership was outside their core mission, and even beyond that, Fresh Food had done what it intended to do,” Fulkerson said.
Fresh Food was originally the only program in Michigan that connected local food producers with needy people through the food pantry system. Since then, new programs have emerged with the same idea but operate more efficiently, she said.
“We now have the Farm to School program and there’s the Farm to Freezer Food Rescue, delivering just huge amounts of food,” Fulkerson said. “Not all is fresh. They are doing some, and more and more. I think the board felt like we won ... we’ve made a difference in the community, and it was time to let the community take that cause forward as they have.”
The fresh food to pantry began with two women — Bronwyn Jones and Judy Reinhardt from Sweeter Song Farm — buying what they could at the farmer’s market and taking it to food pantries. In 2003 they started organizing and coordinating volunteers, Fulkerson said.
“What was brilliant, on their part, was this notion we should pay farmers for their food and not expect them to donate it,” Fulkerson said. “Now they do donate a lot, but the difference is when we buy the food from the farmer, we get the dollar’s worth of food from the pantry and we also put a dollar in the pocket of the farmer, who is more likely to stay in business and spend the money locally and help the economy. It was a winning circle.”
Fresh Food now buys from 20 different farmers in the five-county area and donates to 24 food pantries, Fulkerson said.
“My feeling is that the gap we’re leaving is the purchase of food on a regular basis from small farmers,” she said. “A lot of the other programs are working with farms, but it’s much larger farms. Farm to Freezer, they do purchase, but it’s on a large scale. They want 10,000 pounds of strawberries, for example, and our farms, there is no way to accommodate that.”
Fresh Food holds an annual Empty Bowls fundraiser, and this year was one of the biggest ever.
The normal grants and donations were also steady. Letters went out to supporters explaining the decision on Tuesday, Fulkerson said.
“It wasn’t so much that support had waned in any way,” she said. “What it really comes down to...was not enough funding for us to really do this efficiently.”