BY SUSAN M. BRACKNEY
With its bustling farmers’ markets and ever-growing interest in farm-to-table cuisine, it’s no secret that Bloomington residents have an appetite for locally grown produce. What people may not know is that the farmers who bring their goods to market also make fresh vegetables and fruits available to people seeking food security.
Hoosier Hills Food Bank (HHFB)’s Jake Bruner, director of development and administration, says, “We get all of the excess food from the farmers’ market every Saturday. We’ve been doing that for a very long time.”
By rescuing end-of-market produce, HHFB can offer more than just dry goods to the 100-plus agencies it serves in Brown, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, and Owen counties. Of the 4.5 million pounds of food distributed last year, 1.2 million pounds were fresh offerings. “We’re constantly developing new programs and partnerships to offer increased access to fresh produce,” says Bradley Drake, garden and gleaning coordinator.
There are programs like Plant-a-Row for the Hungry, which encourages gardeners to plant extra crops to donate, and longstanding relationships with area growers such as Harriman Farms. “They’re just north of Spencer,” Drake says. “Last year we gleaned 100,000 pounds of produce from them.” HHFB volunteers harvest peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, and assorted melons from Harriman’s.
Because some produce, like onions and sweet potatoes, can be difficult to obtain, in 2013 HHFB began filling in some produce gaps on its own. That’s when the Monroe County Parks & Recreation Department granted HHFB use of Will Detmer Park acreage for an organic garden. “We can grow the things we don’t get,” Drake explains. Last year, the garden yielded 17,000 pounds of fresh food. This year, HHFB volunteers have planted 5,000 onions and 650 sweet potato plants.
“The other sides of the gardening program are the recreational and educational parts,” Drake adds. “We teach people how to grow food while we’re growing food for people in need.”
Three days a week, volunteers drop in during regular garden hours. John Harl has volunteered at the food bank for seven years and also works in the garden, frequently weeding. Occasionally Harl helps deliver garden produce using his own truck. “We often have more produce than will fit on the [HHFB] truck,” he says. “Sometimes there are agencies waiting for us to weigh the produce. They’re anxious to get it, and that’s gratifying.”
Bruner says HHFB has seen great success with the program, but adds it has yet to fully meet the overwhelming demand for fresh produce, which could only happen with more volunteers and additional refrigerated trucks.
“When we survey our agencies, typically over half of them say they could have used more food,” he says.
For more information and to volunteer, visit hhfoodbank.org.