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Through FoodPool, gardeners donate excess produce to those in need

on April 24, 2012

Oakland is a city of extremes. Some of its residents hold multiple graduate degrees, and others drop out of troubled schools before they’ve learned much at all. Some live in mansions high in the hills, some dwell in the flatlands’ housing projects. And some Oaklanders grow a bounty of fresh produce in their home gardens, while others are miles away from the nearest grocery store. One day, as he was tending his 800 square-foot backyard garden, this last paradox struck Montclair resident Andrew Sigal as particularly unfair.

“My garden produces way more than I can possibly use,” says Sigal, who has been a culinary historian and food activist for the past 10 years. “I used to take the extra chard, corn, kale and onions I grew and put it out on a table for my neighbors, and suddenly I realized, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people in Oakland who need this food more than my neighbors do.’”

Sigal decided that from that moment on, he would donate any excess food he produced, and he would try to convince his neighbors with gardens to do the same. Every week, he spearheaded a car pool to drive excess produce grown in Montclair to a local food pantry, and the organization FoodPool was born.

Any neighborhood can start its own FoodPool, and so far, Oakland has two chapters—Montclair and North Oakland. Sigal’s initial thinking was that he’d take the Montclair food to the Alameda County Food Bank, but he found that food pantries and soup kitchens made better drop off points.

Let’s pause here for a little Food Bank 101: A national organization called Feeding America has jurisdiction over more than 200 food banks nationwide, including Alameda County, San Francisco, Marin County and Napa County food banks. Each of these, in turn, has member partners—food pantries, food shelves, soup kitchens, after school lunch programs, and hospice programs, among others—for feeding various groups of people in need.

One of the main recipients of the Montclair group’s produce is the Telegraph Ministry Center, whose food pantry serves Oaklanders twice a week. Sigal and his fellow FoodPoolers—there are about 50 or 60 people on the Montclair mailing list—take the pantry a selection of produce that can run anywhere from 10 pounds to 40, depending on the season.

Chris Watson, the center’s director, says that because produce is often scarce at the food pantry, this extra fresh food is a serious blessing for the population he serves. “It’s been very beneficial for us,” says Watson. “The majority what we’re able to obtain is canned food, so whenever we can get fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s a huge benefit to our clients. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially because we have some clients that struggle because they have specific dietary needs and can’t have canned food, or their preference is for a vegetarian diet. We try to accommodate them as much as we can.”

Watson says that FoodPool’s produce is nicely varied, and provides a needed change from the massive quantities of onions or oranges the center often gets from the food bank. The produce is also organic, which is another thing that food banks cannot guarantee. He’s seen dozens of types of fruits and vegetables in any one shipment, which during their most bountiful weeks can serve up to 40 or 50 families. And he’s seen produce that while unfamiliar to him, turned out to be a welcome treat to some of his clients. “One week, FoodPool brought something called a banana trunk,” Watson says. “I’d never heard about it, but I learned that it’s popular in some island nations and sure enough, clients came in who were excited to see it and knew how to cook it. No matter how unique the produce is, there always seems to be someone who knows what to do with it.”

FoodPool is part of a greater trend, both locally with groups like the Alameda Backyard Growers, and nationally, of trying to reduce the amount of agricultural waste that America produces every year. Sigal says that because Americans have become accustomed to the perfect, blemish-free apple, or strawberry, produce that is aesthetically “flawed” is often left in the fields to rot. “A painful amount of food is wasted in this country,” he says. “A lot of it is just left in the field because Americans are so prissy about how their food has to look.”

Some organizations, like Second Harvest Heartland, try to reduce this waste by going through the fields and picking what was left there the first time. But Sigal says that for him, waste can be addressed even at the home garden level, since it’s important to make sure every edible morsel is savored. His mission is to take what he’s started in Oakland and grow it. Through FoodPool, he hopes to start a national movement around the idea of gleaning excess food from even the smallest agricultural ventures and making sure it finds a hungry person.

To get the word out, he’s communicating through nationwide organizations like the Security Food Coalition, and attending meetings like the Edible Institute Conference in San Diego. Hopefully, Sigal says, his networking efforts will bring people to his website, where he details exactly how and why every community with gardens should have its own FoodPool. “We have a slightly different philosophy at FoodPool—some people are very focused on donating food in huge quantities,” he says. “We say, ‘Even if you can only give a little bit at a time, that’s what you should do.’”

Image: FoodPool members collect a variety of fruits and vegetables from their gardens each week and donate them to local food pantries. Photo by Anna Lee / annamatic3000 / Flickr.

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