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Cross-Border Produce Rescue in Nogales, AZ
Episode 216th November 2020 • What is American Food? • Hannah Semler & Ali Berlow
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Episode 2: Cross-Border Produce Rescue in Nogales, AZ

Hosts: Ali Berlow & Hannah Semler

Guests: Dana Yost of The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Ida Posner of the Posner Foundation.

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFB) has redistributed over 100 million pounds of produce over the last three years to 37 food banks in 33 States across the US. We speak with Community Food Bank COO, Dana Yost, about their produce rescue operation plans across the border in Mexico, and the long term plans for addressing the root causes of hunger with workforce development programs in Nogales Arizona. We also speak with Ida Posner, Strategic Advisor to the Posner Foundation of Pittsburgh, about their support of Community Food Bank’s cross-border produce rescue program along the US-MX food supply chain. Our goal is to elevate the story of how sourcing surplus from Mexico farms, upstream from the Nogales port of entry, is in fact addressing food loss on farms at a critical point of the US food supply, while feeding hungry people in both countries. Through creative supply chain and collaborative logisitics, CFB's innovative Produce Rescue program will start addressing food waste and food security with partners on both sides of the border, giving back to the communities that feed this country with access to year-round produce.

Audio Editing & Engineering: Ian Carlsen

Transcripts

Ali Berlow:

'What Is American Food?' is a podcast about how our food system is designed. I'm Ali Berlow, and we're exploring the widespread assumptions and gaps in knowledge that we have in the United States about the food we eat year round.

Hannah Semler:

I'm Hannah Semler. 'What Is American Food?' explores the stories we tell and don't tell about our food security and nutritional health in the US, and what is what we call American food.

Ali Berlow:

And today, we're talking about an innovative cross border Food Rescue program based out of the Community Food Bank of southern Arizona in Nogales. The Community Food Bank is one of the oldest most established food banks in the US. And today we're speaking with Chief Operations Officer Dana Yost about what makes this food bank special. Here's Dana and Hannah, a clip from their

Dana Yost:

So why are we special?

Hannah Semler:

Yeah, 'cause you are.

Dana Yost:

Yeah, we are special. So you know, one of the things that makes us different is that we do sit on the Nogales port of entry as a part of our service territory under the contract that we have with Feeding America. Feeding America is this broad coalition of food banks across the country. Specific requirements within Feeding America deal with service area-- areas that you can, you know,

Dana Yost:

We also spoke with Ida Posner, the strategic advisor to the Posner Foundation, who has recently funded Community Food Banks produce rescue program.

Ida Posner:

My role is to advise our trustees both on what areas we might want to be working on in terms of, again, the priorities of the foundation itself, but then also providing your perspective about specific grantees. Prior to my role here, I actually worked for the Pisces foundation in San Francisco for three years. And that was really where my exposure to philanthropy started. And it was

Hannah Semler:

For context, the Community Food Bank of southern Arizona opened its doors in January 1976, in response to a severe economic downturn and widespread layoffs in the Tucson area. Since that time, the food bank has grown most noticeably in numbers of clients with over 200,000 individuals annually. Today, the Community Food Bank provides not only hunger relief assistance, but programs

Ali Berlow:

The Food Bank also runs a large community farm that's home to 75 household plots. It also has a shared garden, a chicken Co Op and learning areas for young children and youth. These days, they host virtual and in person gardening workshops with free or low cost materials for home food production, and farm to child programming in local schools.

Hannah Semler:

Our focus in this episode looks at how Community Food Bank's produce rescue program in Nogales is looking to address both the immediate needs of hunger relief, rescuing millions of pounds of fresh produce for food banks across the country, as well as opportunities of workforce development for the people of Tucson and Nogales looking to work for the produce sector.

Ali Berlow:

Here's Dana Yost, again.

Dana Yost:

There's only a couple of other food banks in the nation that actually sort of have stewardship of something like the Nogales port of entry. Beyond that, I think that you know, we have a, we're a 45 year old Food Bank. We have deep roots in social justice work in doing root-cause work. It's a part of our mission. It's a part of our makeup, our DNA of who we are.

Ali Berlow:

84% of our fresh produce from the US crosses the border from Mexico in the winter months through the port of Nogales. That's 6 billion pounds-- billions with a b. For all you that can compute numbers, even the low estimate of 1% that does not get sold means that 60 million pounds need rescuing, and even then 6,000 tons still end up in the local landfill. That's roughly 300 semi

Dana Yost:

We you know, we sit on a resource that's phenomenal from a lot of different perspectives. It's phenomenal from a food waste perspective. The landfill in Rio Rico, Arizona which is right next to Nogales, if it closed tomorrow would be a superfund site because of all the produce waste that goes into that. We also sit on a resource that's got tremendous potential to have an impact on

Hannah Semler:

In mexico a lot of produce can end up staying in the fields like it does in the U.S. But up until now Community Food Bank's produce rescue area as determined by feeding america territorial contracts has been focused on the Nogales port of entry. They've been doing an incredible job rescuing the 100 million pounds in the last three years. That's 2500 semi tractor trailers

Ida Posner:

My full time job is actually in railroads and transportation, so i'm a huge nerd about logistics. And when you get to the farm level, and when you start thinking about the food system overall, it's really not a food issue-- it's a logistics issue. So what's happening in Nogales and with the Community Food Bank is, in my mind, it's like this gateway, right, and if you can open the

Ali Berlow:

Dana and his team at the Community Food Bank have developed a framework for collaborative supply chains that's really interesting, and it's being applied to this U.S.-Mexico cross border pilot program. Dana again.

Dana Yost:

At the end of the day all of this, you know, hunger relief work is about logistics. Its logistics 101. We're not splitting the atom but there's a lot of moving pieces. And so for more than probably 20 years Arizona has a history of cooperation amongst its food banks, sharing logistics, sharing assets, sharing the resources that our state has. And so what we've done is really we built on

Hannah Semler:

Taking this operational framework of cooperation and shared assets, building reciprocal relationships along the supply chain, we can implement as part of the cross border pilot sourcing from farms in Mexico a partnership with local food banks and local farms that brings more food into Mexican communities as well as into the U.S. communities that need fresh produce in the winter

Dana Yost:

We've had a lot of cross border work with Food banks in mexico for some time, you know, coming together and talking about sort of, you know, the border. The border is sort of this artificial division for the city of Nogales. Twenty some thousand people live on the U.S. side and 300 plus thousand live on the Mexico side and there's a very porous border as far as people going

Dana Yost:

of that has been to try to do something about food waste in Mexico that is just as terrible as it is in the US, if not worse in some areas, to capture food that it would otherwise just go to waste in the field. And so much of what you know happens with Mexican produce is determined by the economics of the US market.

Ali Berlow:

The Community Food Bank has been able to expand and develop the cross border produce rescue with innovative strategic philanthropic support from the Fink Family Foundation.

Hannah Semler:

Yeah, so the Fink Family Foundation's support of Community Food Bank has been a really interesting and innovative model in itself of philanthropic support of a nonprofit, where they fund Community Food Bank to be able to hire me as a consultant to increase the capacity of the great work that they're already doing. So my role has been as a Fink Family Foundation fellow for the

Ali Berlow:

The Posner Foundation out of Pittsburgh supports the operational costs of sourcing and sharing produce being left in fields in Mexico. Here's Ida Posner, once again, explaining how she realized the importance of the work that's being done there.

Ida Posner:

It's incredible-- 84% of our winter produce comes from Mexico. And it is something that, you know, as someone who has always primarily lived in a city and gone to, you know, grocery stores or farmers markets to get my food, I just had no sense truly of where it was coming from. So that was really eye opening. And then to think about how much is being wasted and how much is just being

Ali Berlow:

Funders in the food waste food recovery world have found great resources and networking through Refed. Refed is really interesting to me, because it's a national multi stakeholder nonprofit. That includes leading businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government leaders, all committed to reducing us food waste. It's effective and taking a data driven approach to move the food

Ida Posner:

So when we started conversations with Hannah and Dana, it was clear that, you know, we could try this pilot project of having basically a guy in a truck trying to source excess produce in Mexico and get it across the border into the supply chain to the food banks in the US. And that missing link was really what was holding back all of this excess produce from entering the US food

Hannah Semler:

So now, and thanks to Fink Family Foundation for strategic support, a pilot program is underway, supported by Posner Foundation, to run a US Mexico cross border sourcing program, building on Community Food Bank's three years of cooperative logistics and asset sharing in the southwest that will add at least 20 million more pounds of fresh produce to our emergency food systems

Ida Posner:

And so it was honestly when you know, we heard about this project it was so exciting because it really fits with so many of the things that we were trying to do, which is look at areas where other people aren't funding, try and find the levers that are going to open up a lot of other resources or, you know, drive a lot of excess momentum to reduce food waste generally. So, it's been

Ali Berlow:

That increase of 50% of produce with an additional 500 semi tractor trailer loads will not only increase supply, it will also support the need and sustainability for a repack workforce development program in Nogales. This program is creating jobs to ensure mixed loads are available for smaller food banks and produce boxes available for COVID-19 drive thru distribution models, and

Hannah Semler:

Currently, there are obstacles to food leaving Nogales through food bank channels. Firstly, Community Food Bank currently operates a lean drop and hook model. So more challenged product that could be diverted from landfill with a repack program doesn't because recipient food banks do not want to sort through product that is further challenged three days after it was shipped. So the

Hannah Semler:

cost can be turned into affordable produce boxes for recipient organizations when combined with the free donated product in Nogales. So Nogales is an incredible leverage point where you can create affordable options for all the different kinds of nonprofits that are doing food emergency work. And food banks that are very different in size and in nature and what they're trying to do. And Nogales

Ali Berlow:

That makes me look at the semi tractor trailers in a really different way, to think about what's inside of them, tailored for specific food banks.

Hannah Semler:

Yeah, so what we're talking about now is turning three years of experience and sort of those logistics model of in and out you know ,truckload in truckload out where Dana and his team have wanted to handle the product the least possible because they don't want to take it out and change the temperature and put it back in. And so they have it stored, basically almost on the truck

Ali Berlow:

It's so much of a more rounded approach it feels like. And like you said, there's all these wins along this repack program.

Hannah Semler:

Absolutely. The other piece of it is that local people in Nogales don't always have year round jobs in a very seasonal market. And to be able to provide local people with the opportunity to expand their skill set, and maybe get higher paying jobs instead of entry level jobs is really an important thing. That Community Food Bank, given that they're managing this big

Ali Berlow:

Let's hear from Dana Yost again.

Dana Yost:

My food bank is heavily invested in workforce development and trying to provide job training for folks. I believe passionately that hunger is not going to be solved by charity, it's going to be solved by justice. I believe that racial discrimination, systemic racism are major factors in contributing to poverty. I believe that food banking, in general is a failed strategy to do

Ali Berlow:

The people that I meet in the sector of food waste, and rescue, and emergency feeding operations are impassioned, feeding people every day, it's like helping them be whole again. And food banks measure themselves in meal served, number of clients served, and those semi tractor trailers we keep talking about that represent tons of food. There are personal stories, too. And we think that

Dana Yost:

I've been in a situation personally, in my life, when I was younger, to be food insecure, I know what it's like to be hungry, I know what it's like to be homeless. And so I know the critical need of when you're in those positions of getting food, immediately getting it today. And so that work is, that work is important. It's critically important. But that work in and of itself

Hannah Semler:

All this work is meant to ensure more people have nutritional security in this country with more dignity, more choice, and more joy. Food distribution cannot be measured by the pounds distributed. We don't measure our farm to table dinner at a local restaurant by how much the plate of food weighs. I mean, it's about the joy it creates, the sense of belonging and the love from

Ali Berlow:

Thanks for listening everybody to the second episode of 'What Is American Food?,' our podcast about how our food system is designed. I'm Ali Berlow. And we're exploring these widesprea assumptions and gaps in the knowledge that we have in the U.S. about the food we eat year round.

Hannah Semler:

And thank you. I'm Hannah Semler. 'What Is American Food?,' explores the stories we tell and don't tell us about our food security and nutritional health in the U.S. and what is Ameri an fo