Indiana Food Waste, Hunger Priorities for Collectors Society of St. Andrei

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Sometimes life gives you lemons and sometimes it gives you 40,000 pounds of cucumbers — at least if you’re Dawn Barnes, Indiana regional director of the Society of St. Andrei. The semi-truck of cucumbers rolled into Barnes’ life on October 5, 2023, after he was returned from a grocery store on the grounds that they were not straight enough.

By the end of the day, the allegedly warped cupcakes were in cold storage at a Midwestern food bank, waiting to be distributed to merchants whose lives were decidedly more meager with their produce.

“It makes me angry that we as a society have conditioned ourselves to have straight cucumbers,” Barnes said. “It’s both maddening and heartbreaking.”

“Maddening” because this load of products is just one of many discarded every day across America for cosmetic reasons. Overall, approximately 40% of the food grown in this country never actually reaches the table.

And “heartbreaking” because one in ten people across the country isn’t always able to make sure everyone in their household has enough of the food they need. The number in Indiana is similar.

“We have enough food grown in America to feed everybody,” Barnes said. “But it’s a matter of access to it.”

One of the ways in which the Society of St. Andrei facilitates this access by diverting loads of rejected produce, such as cucumbers, from landfills to food banks. Another is by organizing volunteers to collect unsold produce from farmers’ fields to donate this fresh food to famine relief agencies.

The act of saving what is left after the commercial harvest is called gleaning, and the practice of using this second harvest to feed the needy dates back to the Old Testament.

This is where the Society of St. Andrei, or SoSA, assumes his mandate. Founded by Methodist workers in Virginia, the organization first began distributing salvaged produce in 1983. Today, it coordinates a food collection and distribution network in ten states. Given the level of food insecurity in Indiana and the amount of food grown here, SoSA opened its Indianapolis office with Barnes at the helm in 2018.

Barnes has spent much of her life thinking about how food gets to people’s plates—or doesn’t. She spent 12 years engaged in community development in South Africa. She saw a lot of hunger and worked to support agricultural projects. The challenges she saw there weren’t the same as those in Indiana, but some of the lessons have stayed with her.

“In Africa, in general, people don’t waste food,” she said. “There’s always a way to either recycle it or give it to your neighbor.”

There was a culture of community support, she said. Today you may share with a neighbor in need, but tomorrow you may be the one asking for help.

Barnes shares the fruits of her own garden with her neighbors, but the work she does with SoSA is also an extension of that premise.

“It’s not just about the food,” she said. “It’s about creating community.”

She cultivates relationships with farmers, volunteers and food pantries, weaving more direct connections into the food system that allow producers to share their bounty with neighbors in need.

There is a huge disconnect, Barnes said, not only between us and our neighbors, but also between us and the source of our food. And at every step along the supply chain, edible food is lost.

The harvest remains unharvested due to market oversaturation and labor shortages or cosmetic defects. If a farmer does decide to put a product on the market, he bears the cost of getting it there and risks rejection – as in the case of crooked cucumbers.

A big part of Barnes’ work, as she sees it, is education. She wants people to know that just because a food isn’t picture-perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly nutritious, and to instill an appreciation for the farmers and farmworkers who grow and harvest our food.

Having volunteers in the field collecting, she said, does just that. She remembers watching a five-year-old dig up potatoes for the first time, learning that she could become French fries and delivering them directly to a local pantry.

“It’s really making that connection between where your food is grown and where there’s a need in the community,” Barnes said. “It really keeps me going.”

It’s also part of how she measures impact.

“You can’t measure relationships in pounds,” she said.

Through October of this year, SoSA reports that they have collected and distributed 373,923 pounds of food in Indiana. That might sound like a lot, but Barnes admits that “it’s a drop in the bucket.”

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