SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
An initiative to bring local produce to some of the county’s neediest residents is gearing up for its second year. The Produce Bounty Project aims to add a boost of fresh fruits and vegetables to the commodities foods shipments distributed to the county’s low-income residents through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.
The project solicits produce donations from local farmers and gardeners. Organizers were blown away by the amount collected last year, which was the program’s debut. This year, organizers are hoping for a repeat and will be collecting produce today and Sunday in preparation for Monday’s commodity distribution.
“I think enough people go through the commodity distribution process that we could definitely feed more people with local produce,” said Darrin Parmenter, director of the La Plata County Extension Office. “We can always take more.”
The extension office joined with the Durango Food Bank, which runs the commodities distribution program for the county, and Cooking Matters to put on the project. Volunteers will wash and separate donated produce into individual portions that organizers are hoping to distribute to each of the estimated 380 recipients.
The produce is a treat for people who usually may not have access to such optimal food, said Sarah Smith, director of the Durango Food Bank.
“When you’re in the system receiving food from food banks, you are not always getting the prime food,” she said. “It’s really refreshing for these people to go through the line and grab a bag of produce that is just beautiful. It makes you feel like you are a normal person.”
The program also provides local growers with a destination for extra produce at a time when most gardens are overproducing.
Shared Harvest Community Garden donated food to the commodity distribution last year and this year, said Jama Crawford, who runs the garden with her husband.
“These first two to three weeks of September it all comes at once – it’s very hard for people to harvest and process that much food at once,” she said. “It helps to be able to share it.”
The commodity distribution will be Monday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Cooking Matters will be on hand that day with recipes and cooking demonstrations to show commodities recipients how to use ingredients like kale or winter squash to make healthy meals. The national nonprofit does cooking and nutrition education for low-income families, to help them shop, cook and eat healthy on a budget.
The goal is to give lower-income residents a few simple, versatile ways to use their produce that doesn’t require frying or smothering it with butter, said Erin Jolley, the organization’s coordinator for Southwest Colorado.
“We are helping families make the best use of food they’re receiving,” Jolley said.
A popular recipe last year was a winter squash and mushroom pasta sauce made with local roasted squash and cream of mushroom soup from the commodities distribution.
Families who earn 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level qualify for the commodities distribution program, called the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
The Durango Food Bank has been the county organizer for the distribution for at least the last 10 years, Smith said. The USDA buys surplus food from farmers across the nation, and that puts money in farmers’ pockets while benefiting needy populations, Smith said. The department then sends the foods, which include items such as canned fruits and vegetables, meat and other staples, to counties nationwide four times a year. The food bank unloads and distributes those foods. The amount of food delegated to La Plata County is based on the number of food stamps of recipients who live here.
In June, 1,673 households received food stamps under the Colorado Food Assistance Program. That number has increased steadily since June 2010 when 1,417 households received that assistance, said Martha Johnson with the county’s human services department.
While Project Produce Bounty provides a great service to La Plata County, Smith emphasized that the food bank has a need for that kind of produce, plus other donations, year round.
“We are seeing record numbers; we’ll take produce and distribute it (anytime throughout the year). I would encourage people not to focus on one distribution,” she said. “If people have extra food, we’re here to take their donations willingly, even homegrown products.”