Juan Palomino prepares cabbage for transport from a Holtville, Calif.,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Steve Sharp paws through a 4-foot-high pile of corn, sending flies everywhere and exposing the first signs of rot under the late fall sun. He pulls out an ear and shucks it.
"There's nothing wrong with that," he says, standing at a packing shed in Holtville, a tiny town in the agricultural spread of the Imperial Valley. He finds two more ears just as good, the kernels just starting to dry out.
The grower, Rudy Schaffner, once thought of that corn -- perfectly edible ears that are too short or have blank spots on the cob called "skips" -- as food for his cows or as compost. Sharp saw a potential supply line for California's food banks and the hungry people they feed.
Sharp is one of three Farm to Family solicitors, who spend their days trolling the state, talking to growers to find fruits and vegetables for people who rely on food pantries and soup kitchens for sustenance.
The solicitors' work marks both a more aggressive approach to feeding those who need help and an effort to improve nutrition.
Not so long ago, food banks got the salvage from grocery stores -- "scratch and dent" products that couldn't be sold, said Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Assn. of Food Banks. And they got industry donations -- "overwhelmingly canned and packaged" goods -- and government surplus commodities.
But now, supermarkets are much better able to track and predict what will sell, thanks to innovations such as customer club cards. So they have fewer leftovers. At the same time, secondary markets overseas and dollar stores are taking many of the products that might have gone to food banks, Sigler said.
The changes coincide with what Sigler said is "a sea shift in food banking, due to recommendations about proper nutrition, the link between food insecurity and obesity."
"The common wisdom in food banks for many years was that we need to give people adequate calories," she said. "Now we know that we also need to give people healthy food."
All of these forces combined mean that food banks are becoming assertive shoppers. This year, Farm to Family, a program of the California Assn. of Food Banks, will secure 87 million pounds of seasonal produce, some donated but most of it purchased for pennies on the dollar, for 44 food banks all over California, said Ron Clark, the association's food sourcing and logistics manager.
"Ten years ago, food banks were much more passive," said Michael Flood, who runs the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, one of the largest food banks in the country. They took what they could get -- packaged food that might have been supermarket rejects or new products that failed.
Today, 20% of the L.A. bank's food is produce -- by far the largest single category, Flood said.
Farmers have long donated food to their local food banks or have allowed people to glean leftovers from their fields. But in 2005, the California Assn. of Food Banks got involved, hiring one solicitor who procured 10 million pounds of food. In 2008, three solicitors got 64 million pounds of produce. A fourth solicitor begins work in January.
Sharp, whose family has long farmed in the Imperial Valley, is a deal maker in a Dodge pickup and a straw cowboy hat, seeking farmers in the Imperial and Coachella valleys who are willing to harvest or pack crops they can't otherwise sell. They get paid just enough to get the cabbage or garlic or melons into bins.
"Two weeks ago I had a grower call me and say he had a truckload of cantaloupes and one of honeydew. So I have to go look at it and make sure the quality is there," Sharp said. "They were just real small, and nobody wanted it. There was no market for that size of melon."
He hopes to get Schaffner's off-size corn come spring. Schaffner has agreed to work on adapting his conveyor belt system to handle what Sharp needs. They think of it as finding a solution "farmer style."
"The cool thing is, we've got a problem and we're taking care of it directly," Schaffner said one sunny December afternoon in his kitchen, a large poinsettia on the table.
Farmers often have crops that don't meet customers' size or appearance requirements. Or they may have a bumper crop they can't afford to store. A storm in the Northeast can back up produce orders across the country, leaving a farmer with a truckload of unsold food.
"You cut their losses. You are fixing a problem they may have," Sharp said.
Sharp, 53, grew up outside Holtville, and went to a two-room elementary school where, with a parent's permission, students could go barefoot. He lives near his parents and his 95-year-old grandmother, and still farms some with his father. Farmers are his neighbors, folks he saw at his daughters' soccer games or high school fundraisers.
"I know these people," Sharp said, explaining his strategy: "Who's got something we could get?"
He visits people like Schaffner or Jack Vessey, a fourth-generation farmer who grows cabbage and other green vegetables on more than 10,000 acres just north of Mexico.