Harvest of Hope prevents food grown on RI farms from going to waste

LITTLE COMPTON – As it rained and rained and rained this summer, weeds took advantage of the bounty.

For the most part, Silas Peckham-Paul and the crew at Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton put up a good fight, but there was one row of leeks they got to a little late.

To the untrained eye, the leeks were still perfect. But for those in the know, the weeds have smothered the leeks just enough to make them go limp. Too skinny, Peckham-Paul said, to sell to a wholesaler like Whole Foods.

“They’re pretty picky about a certain size of leek they want,” he said. “But they’re still great leeks.”

So when Ava Agudelo called him last week and asked if there was any food in his field that could be collected by volunteers and donated to Rhode Island food banks, he offered the entire row of leeks, which amounted to 345 pounds of allium .

Harvest of Hope reaches 1 million pounds of recovered food

Agudelo is the Value Chain Strategy Director for Hope’s Harvest, one of Farm Fresh RI’s core programs. What the long title means is that since the operation was founded in 2018, she is the one who connects farmers with food assistance programs and, together with her team, coordinates what needs to happen to make it possible.

She calls many farmers – the organization works with 56 local farms – looking for surplus food.

“It’s not a complicated concept,” she said. “If there’s food that’s not collected, it goes to waste, and everybody hates that.”

Thursday morning’s leek harvest marked a milestone for the program: 1 million pounds of recovered food that would otherwise have been composted.

Hope Harvest recovered the food both through harvesting, which volunteers did on Thursdays while pulling and chopping leeks, and by buying surplus and contracting with local growers.

There was a bit of fanfare for the moment, a short speech and photo before he headed to the field, some congratulations, but mostly the assembled team just wanted to start picking.

“It’s fulfilling,” said Ellie Hull, who has put in over 100 volunteer hours this year with Hope’s Harvest. “You know you’re providing food for people and you’re—you know, doing good deeds.”

The leek was distributed to St. John’s Lodge Food Bank in Portsmouth, East Bay Food Pantry in Bristol and East Bay Community Action Program in Newport. But over the past five years, more than 1,000 Hope’s Harvest volunteers have delivered fresh food to 53 hunger relief agencies in the Ocean State.

State of Food Insecurity in Rhode Island

Although Hope’s Harvest has grown to be able to serve about 35,000 food insecure Rhode Islanders per month, food insecurity is at its highest in years.

The 2022 State of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank report showed that nearly a third of Ocean State residents are food insecure, triple the level recorded in 2017. The pandemic and increased food prices were cited as reasons for the increase.

What’s next for Hope’s Harvest?

Agudelo said the goal is not for Harvest of Hope to get big, but to feed people and support farmers.

“Even if we see a reduction in the amount of food we collect, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it could mean that farmers are instead finding markets for their produce that they couldn’t otherwise access through programs like From Farm to school,” or through programs like the local food purchasing agreement where we can buy surplus, Agudelo said. “I think it creates a really vital circle where everyone really gets what they need and the food system works for everyone.”

Plus, it moves the food system away from those picky rules about how big leeks should be and refocuses it on feeding people and paying people with the skills to grow them.

“Hunger relief agencies don’t care if your cabbage is a little too big or your apples are a little too small. This is food and we will buy it,” Agudelo said. “We want to take care of everyone involved in the process.”

Anyone interested in becoming involved as a volunteer, farm partner or agency can contact Harvest of Hope Operations Manager Shannon Hickey at [email protected].

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