Q&A: Mark Lowry on the Importance of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables and Local Food Production for OC Food Bank

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County. Photo Courtesy of OC Food Bank.

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County. Photo Courtesy of OC Food Bank.

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank in Garden Grove, California, runs the Food Bank like his life depends on it. That’s probably because Lowry knows how important a well-stocked food bank is for low-income and food deprived community members in Orange County.

Lowry and OC Food Bank,a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC), work with nearly 400 local charities, soup kitchens, and community organizations to end hunger and malnutrition in the county. Annually, the OC Food Bank distributes more than 20 million pounds of donated food, USDA commodities, and purchased food to non-profit agencies in Orange County that serve low-income families and individuals.

Grow Local OC recently had the pleasure of speaking to Lowry about the state of the OC Food Bank, its growing reliance on and distribution of fresh and local produce, the importance of statewide and local Orange County partnerships in strengthening the food bank, and more!

Grow Local OC: What is the current state of the OC Food Bank? What challenges and opportunities are you encountering?

Mark Lowry: At the OC Food Bank, and food banks all across America, there’s been a decrease in the donation of canned and dry goods. In the past, we often got something from a food manufacturer, wholesaler, or distributor because someone made a mistake in manufacturing, etc. Over time, businesses have become better at doing what they are supposed to do—become more efficient. There have been fewer of those mistakes that turn into donations. At about the same time, the secondary food market increased—goods that sit on a shelf at a mainstream supermarket get pulled and sent to grocery store outlets, etc.—in the past, those products would have gone to food banks.

But in California and at our Food Bank, we’ve been focused on getting more fresh fruits and vegetables. That is a response to the decline of canned and dried good donations. The state produces 60 percent of America’s fresh fruit and vegetables. We’re working with the California Association of Food Banks and have developed an effective program for providing a more consistent supply of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the state.

Grow Local OC: What impact do food banks have on regional and local food systems, and farmers?

Mark Lowry: Food banks for major and minor producers are an outlet for surplus.

The California Association of Food Banks established the Farm to Family program eight years ago. The Association began visiting farmers throughout California. Farmers had long donated their surplus, but the Food Bank Association proposed to build a system where food banks would have consistent access to fruits and vegetables. The farmers were interested, but wanted some money for their work because sometimes, farmers would leave produce in their fields if it didn’t meet industry specs. So, they’d have to pay a crew to go back and pick the #2s. Or maybe the farmers were already picking the #2s, but selling those to the pie filling, juice, or jam and jelly people. The farmers were happy to sell produce to the Association, but for a modest price—usually that averages two-12 cents a pound.

Now there is a large program that allows food banks like ours to order based on California’s harvest season. While it costs food banks an amount of money, it also creates jobs. Some farm workers are going back to their fields and picking up stuff that wouldn’t have been picked. And in some cases, the goods would have been discarded and are diverted from the waste stream.

Seedstock: Can you tell us about any statewide and local partnerships that help support the OC Food Bank?

Mark Lowry: Statewide, we work with the California Association of Food Banks. It has helped develop the Farm to Family program. Initially, we focused on fresh fruits and vegetables. But we’ve recognized a couple things: California’s agricultural industry is much bigger than fresh fruits and vegetables. They are looking to expand to include things like eggs.

Locally, we’ve got some great partners. One is A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation, Orange County, Japanese-American farmer. He’s a great leader in progressive agricultural practices. He is the co-owner of Orange County Produce, along with his brother, Matt Kawamura. They’ve done many things, but here’s one example.

Kawamura wanted to build a community farm in the City of Irvine on a parcel of land that the city had. They said the land wasn’t zoned for agricultural use. He came back with a counterproposal called the Incredible Edible Park. He would build a park, but everything in that park would be edible. It was relocated about two years ago, but for many years, in Irvine, there’s been the Incredible Edible Park.

Also in Irvine: the city took over the closed, 4,800-acre El Toro Marine Air Station. We met with the chairman of the Orange County Great Park board of directors to discuss the issue of hunger in the community. Also, before the facility was a military base, it had been a farm 75-80 years ago. Returning some of that land to its original agricultural use had historic appeal. The chairman of the board said they’d set aside some acres for permanent agricultural use to honor Orange County’s agricultural heritage. We proposed to make some acreage available to a local farmer. It would be free or substantially below market rate in exchange for an agreement that the farmer would provide a percentage of every harvest to the Food Bank. Over the last seven years, we’ve received millions of pounds of produce grown at the Great Park in Irvine thanks to that commitment.

Another partner is the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. One detention site they run is the Musick Honor Farm. It had been involved in the production of fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, and livestock for decades but around 2009, the country decided it couldn’t continue to operate the farm. The detention facility remained, inmates were housed there, but they shut down the farming operation. A few years down the road, we became aware of that. We invited the sheriff to come to the Food Bank and had a conversation with her about the needs of the community. She quickly said they’d restart the farming operation. They’re farming 12 acres now. We hope to increase that over time. It’s got myriad benefits: inmates get the opportunity to be out in the fresh air and stay productive. Also, the inmates know the produce goes to low income families in Orange County. In many cases, those are their families or families from their communities. That’s something they have pride in.

We use these examples to start conversations with potential partners. We’ve been having conversations with Southern California Edison for some time. They’ve got a lot of property. So, we’re talking to Edison to access some of their properties for some small, local farming operations.

We’ve also made a proposal that concerns the Fairview hospital in Costa Mesa. It was built to house 4,000 disabled persons but now houses 200. Nationally there’s been a trend against mass housing—to integrate people in communities and group homes. The state of California wants to shut down these massive mental hospitals—that land will be repurposed. We’ve already gone to the city of Costa Mesa and to the state and have asked for some acreage for a local farming operation. That doesn’t mean we’ll get it, but we’ve included our request. We’re hoping to at least get five acres. Also: the hospital plans to build a little village for people who remain there. There’s a program called AgrAbility, which integrates disabled persons into agricultural production. We’d like to help integrate this into being part of the therapy.

Grow Local OC: What’s your goal for the OC Food Bank in the coming years?

Mark Lowry: More partnerships. We’ve had some great success in transforming parcels of idle land into productive use. We want to identify new partners that have idle land. Some of those projects may be little and some could be large in scope. But you can’t drive through our community without finding vacant lots. For example, there’s a company that’s been very supportive of the Food Bank—a very progressive company—that is moving to a 14-acre facility that has a lot of surplus land. And there’s a local meat manufacturer that has a normal, run-of-the-mill lawn in front of its building—we’ve met with them a few times and told them we’d like to put in a community garden here.

Everything from partnering with local businesses and helping them build small parcels, to working on projects like the Fairview hospital. We’ve done it before—we’ve proven the concept can be done—and we use those projects as success stories to go to others to identify those farmer/partners, too.

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Mark Lowry will also be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear him speak about food access, food bank farms and more, click here:http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

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