The food bank business
The food bank business
Three weeks before they were put on display at the Canton Food Pantry, these Hubbard squash were still on the vine at Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon. Over the course of 10 days, they were picked, sold to the Greater Boston Food Bank, and then distributed to food pantries.
Jim Ward sells a pallet-size box of Hubbards to the food bank for $200, or about 20 to 25 cents a pound, which he says leaves him a tiny profit.
The Hubbards look heavy but aren’t. As harvesting goes, it’s not exactly backbreaking work.
Several minutes later, the box is full. “It’s more difficult to pick a quart of strawberries,” Ward says.
Ward, who is 48 and runs the farm with his older brother, has been growing Hubbards for years.
The farm also chops them up before Thanksgiving and puts the pieces out for sale in the store. They sell some, too, to customers who just want them as decoration in their fall tableaux.
Hubbard squash, most sources suggest, owes its name to Marblehead, where it was brought from the West Indies in the 18th or 19th century. A woman in town, Elizabeth Hubbard, introduced it to a seed enthusiast, the story goes, and thereafter it bore her name.
After picking, Ward stores all his Hubbards in a barn or near the loading docks behind the farm store.
This year, for the first time, the Greater Boston Food Bank began purchasing Hubbards from Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, thanks to a state initiative designed to link food agencies with local growers.
For Ward, adding the food bank as a customer brings in revenue for the farm, yes, but it’s more than that. Like many farmers — and, for that matter, like many who work in hunger relief — he hates seeing food go to waste.
It is, he says, gratifying to see aid organizations like the Greater Boston Food Bank closing gaps between food production and food consumption, between farm and table.
When it’s time to deliver them, his employees load them into a big box truck with a yellow school bus hood or into a smaller truck.
Ready for delivery from Ward’s Berry farm. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, September 24, a big cardboard container of Hubbards came into the food bank, got its license plate, and was put into 55-degree storage. Three days later, early on Thursday the 27th, they were moved into the food bank’s marketplace, ready for the taking.
Catherine D’Amato is CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank. In the fiscal year that ended this September 30, the nonprofit distributed 40.8 million pounds of food, a nearly 47 percent increase.
Pallets of food are stacked 35 feet into the air in the humming warehouse, positioned on massive orange racks marked with bar codes and multicolored letters.
Every pallet, every item, every shelf position, every expiration date — they’re all tracked with a sophisticated warehouse-management system.
Food bank officials like to say that everything on the shelves — from dry storage, to the 55- and 35-degree areas, to the zero-degree freezer — has a license plate. Every piece of food is accountable.
In the fiscal year that just ended, 10 million of the 40.8 million pounds of food the food bank distributed was produce, the highest share ever. “Twenty years ago? Couldn’t move a carrot,” D’Amato says. Acquiring, storing, and shipping apples, lettuce, and tomatoes is, of course, more complicated than handing out canned goods. Efficiency, timing, proper refrigeration, and a nimble transport system all become more critical.
When orders come in, they are transmitted wirelessly to Motorola hand-held scanners, which are connected to the warehouse-management system. Food bank workers use them to fill orders and register what they’re taking from the shelves by shooting a laser beam at the bar codes.
Linda and Bob Malonson load up their truck for Stoneham Adventist Community Services.
The new management system allows the food bank to tailor online ordering to each agency. Food pantries without freezers, for example, don’t see frozen food as an option.
The food bank acquires some items using state emergency food-relief funding, and only eligible agencies have access to them on the site.
If a pantry selects a pickup day that’s two weeks away, anything with an expiration date before then doesn’t show up.
The software also maintains the agencies’ order histories, so they can track what they’ve selected over time, and lists a nutritional value for every morsel in the warehouse.
The food bank facility is 117,000 square feet. Twenty thousand volunteers served at the food bank in the fiscal year ending September 30.
On September 27, Cindy Poshkus and two fellow volunteers from the Canton Food Pantry picked up their 4,500-pound order, a sliver of the 225,991 pounds the food bank would distribute that day. Poshkus, the Canton Food Pantry’s co-director, hadn’t ordered the Hubbard squash beforehand. “I was hesitant to take them,” she says, not sure her customers would bite. More than 375 families now rely on the Canton Food Pantry. Four to seven more sign up every week.
One morning, the most talked-about item at the Canton Food Pantry was a pile of blue-green Hubbard squash, looking like bloated, gnarled footballs, waiting for brave souls to bring them home.
Twenty-seven people went to the Canton Food Pantry that day, and when it was over, three of four Hubbard squash were gone.