EastWest Food Rescue: Reflecting on two successful years of working with farmers to feed Washingtonians experiencing food insecurity

It was April 2020 when EastWest Food Rescue main founder George Ahearn learned that onion and potato farmers in his hometown of Othello, Wash. were struggling to sell their crops because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worried that the produce would go to waste while thousands of Washingtonians struggled to put food on the table, George posted on Facebook looking for folks to support him in diverting food from going to waste to people who were experiencing food insecurity.

Community members and co-founders, Nancy Balin and Zsofia Pasztor from Farmer Frog, a farm based in Woodinville, answered his call to action. Within two weeks, they rallied community members to caravan from the Puget Sound region to Eastern Washington to pick up several tons of potatoes and onions.  The produce was brought to Farmer Frog farm in Woodinville where it was packed and made available to community members and local food relief organizations to pick up.  

Shortly after the initial Facebook post, EastWest Food Rescue was founded as a volunteer-led organization, and their services grew rapidly. John Kunin and Karen Manuel joined EastWest Food Rescue as volunteers shortly after it was founded. John now serves as vice chair of the board and director of business development and strategy, and Karen serves as the interim executive director.

Reflecting on the work of the organization over the past two years, John emphasizes the need that he and other were seeing in Washington.

“You were seeing this on national TV at the time. You were hearing these stories of local farmers about to plow their fields over, because they had all these extra potatoes and onions in still in their silos. So much food wase just about to go to waste,” he said. “At the same time, you were seeing all these pictures of cars lined up at food banks that are just backed for long distances.”

They weren’t the only ones feeling desperate to do something about what they were seeing across Washington: In the first year of existence, EastWest Food Rescue has inspired over 650 volunteers to participate in cross-state caravans or support efforts at the Farmer Frog site. 

The process of diverting surplus produce from farmers to hunger relief organizations was simple. Around 10 a.m., cars, smaller trucks and even dump trucks arrived in eastern Washington ready to pick up loads of harvested produce and drive back to Farmer Frog near Maltby, where volunteers would be ready to unload and bag the produce.

John recalled his first-time volunteering with EastWest Food Rescue and the emotions that went with it.

“We watched these dump trucks – double dump trucks – that are normally full of gravel, and we’re watching them dump potatoes in this large field,” he said. “Then we’d all spread apart 6 feet and start bagging them. I turned to the organizer and asked, ‘how many people is this going to feed?,’ and he said, ‘This is going to feed 300,000 people in the Puget Sound area.’ I just turned around, where no one could see me and I started to cry, because I just could not believe this level of food insecurity.”

Knowing that more people needed to be fed as the pandemic continued, dedicated volunteers like John and Karen helped the organization grow by getting additional infrastructure like donated refrigerated trailers, a website, and assigning responsibilities to volunteers.

As the organization grew, more connections were being made. One connection in particular was Diane Dempster who worked for Charlie’s Produce after 35 years, and who brought an abundance of knowledge about food waste and buying produce. With her expertise, EastWest Food Rescue expanded to include a variety of other produce, including carrots, asparagus, blueberries, lettuce, beets, apples, strawberries, and even watermelon.

This expansion is an important component of the work they do, specifically when working with their last-mile distribution partners such as Restoration Community Impact, an organization based in the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities areas that serve a predominantly Latinx community.

“When we work with our last-mile distribution partners we ask, ‘What type of food does your community look for?’ Specifically in terms of produce and then try to source those types of food to support their needs,” Karen said. “So with that community we’ll try to get more tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro and we’ve even been able to get mangoes delivered from California.”

More recently, they organized a campaign to support the Ukrainian-Slavic community and supplied household staples like cabbage and beets.

Moving forward, EastWest Food Rescue is hoping to increase consistency and predictability of providing food through our colder seasons by collaborating more with local farmers – especially as fuel costs increase.

One solution is through the purchase of “seconds,” which is what farmers describe as produce that’s not cosmetically pleasing to the eye and that wholesalers and retailers might reject because it doesn’t sell. Sometimes “seconds” could be sold at farmers markets or to local restaurants, but those opportunities were greatly diminished with the Covid-19 pandemic.

EastWest Food Rescue stepped in and partnered with farmers who needed to sell their seconds, avoiding food waste while supporting local farmers and community members alike.

A good example of this came when a farmer was having trouble selling watermelons that were too small to sell at stores.

“Most stores like large watermelons, and one of our partners didn’t have a market for his smaller watermelons so he was going to leave it in his field,” Karen said. “That essentially means that he doesn’t want to pay his workers to harvest something that’s going to go to waste. So, we were able to purchase the smaller watermelon from him and that covered the cost of labor.”

This approach of diverting fresh and local produce further supported traditional food banks, grassroots organizations, faith-based organizations and Native American tribes across Washington and beyond, supporting over 700 hunger relief agencies in its two years. In Washington State alone, EWFR has now moved over 21 million pounds of predominately fresh produce.

Learn more about EastWest Food Rescue and ways to get involved at eastwestfoodrescue.org.

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