With 26,000 pounds of fresh produce harvested, the Seed to Feed program surpassed expectations in its first year of operation despite the intense summer heat.
Two one-acre fresh produce gardens — one in Goshen, one in Elkhart — yielded thousands of tomatoes, green beans, peppers and eggplant. A third field donated by a local farmer produced 19,000 pounds of potatoes. That produce has been distributed by Church Community Services to food pantries throughout Elkhart County.
In addition to fresh produce, 30 acres of soybeans and 35 acres of corn have been harvested and sold commercially. The money from those sales will be used to buy winter vegetables for CCS and other pantries in the county.
“It wasn’t a good year for the corn and soybean crops,” said David Hochstetler, Seed to Feed coordinator. “But overall this year was a huge success. We had a ton of volunteers and saw incredible generosity from the community.”
Organized by local farmers last winter, Seed to Feed is a grassroots initiative that grows food to help feed the hungry in Elkhart County. Church Community Services — home to the largest client choice pantry in the county — serves as the lead agency.
Everything in the project was donated, including the fields, seed, tractor fuel, fertilizer and of course, the labor. More than 40 regular volunteers and several middle school classes helped to plant and harvest the produce. A dozen Future Farmers of America high school students added an additional two or three hours of labor each week, filling 15 to 17 boxes of vegetables weekly.
“That’s a lot of green beans!” Hochstetler said.
Many volunteers have promised to participate in the future, and local farmers have already committed 85 acres of land for 2013. Seed to Feed will also add a third fresh produce garden at River Oaks Community Church in Goshen.
One of the program’s goals for next year is to provide protein to the community by raising livestock and donating the meat to local pantries. They have already received the donation of a 1,100-pound heifer and are in the process of securing four acres of land to raise cattle.
Seed to Feed also hopes to expand its acreage and feed more mouths by encouraging local farmers to donate the proceeds from one-acre plots of land.
“There are over 1,000 farmers in the county, and they earn about $800 in profit per acre,” Hochstetler said. “If we could get each farmer in Elkhart County to donate one acre of profit, we would have enough food to sustain the whole county.”
Local food insecurity is a major issue in Elkhart County, where one in five families lives below the poverty line, earning less than $23,000 per year, Hochstetler said. The primary goal of Seed to Feed is to eliminate the problem of local hunger.
This year Seed to Feed’s produce was channeled through the pantry at CCS to numerous other pantries and hot food sites, including at least 12 in Elkhart and even some in Nappanee and Wakarusa.
“The produce comes to CCS and then we say ‘come and get it!’ to the area pantries,” said Carol Willis, director of development at CCS.
Workers at CCS have been overwhelmed and overjoyed by the never-ending flow of vegetables they received from Seed to Feed each week. From beans harvested in June to potatoes distributed just last week, the supply of produce has been constant throughout the harvest season.
“We have never had this abundance, variety and consistency of fresh produce,” said Mary Kneller, director of food services at CCS, about Seed to Feed’s yield. “We were never out.”
Seed to Feed brought in so much produce, in fact, that workers at CCS were worried the food would perish before being distributed to their clients and other pantries.
“As soon as we go it (the produce) in, we go it out so we wouldn’t lose anything,” Kneller said. “It rippled out — we didn’t lose anything and got it all distributed. The last thing we wanted was waste.”
Kneller estimated that more than 2400 families have received Seed to Feed produce each month since the harvest began in early summer. Lasting from June to mid-October, the harvest fed a “staggering” number of people, Kneller said.
As Seed to Feed develops, they hope to reach clients beyond the scope of CCS. The long-term goal is to sustain CCS but also to sustain all the pantries in Elkhart County.
Eventually, the program also wishes to expand beyond Elkhart County to St. Joseph and other neighboring counties.
“It’s kind of like an airplane emergency: You put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then you help the person next to you,” Hochstetler said. “We want to help the people at home first, then help those around us.”
Seed to Feed has always been an ambitious project, aiming from the onset to feed as many local people as possible. It began when two local businessmen who wish to remain anonymous met with Rod Roberson, executive director of CCS, to discuss the logistics of feeding an entire county and beyond.
“They asked, ‘In a perfect world, if we could feed every person in Elkhart County, how would we do that?’” Kneller said. “They have never thought smaller than that.”