Tri-City food banks benefit from farmers market donations

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 14, 2013 

Field of Grace

Fields of Grace volunteer Patty Talmage, left, and Alissa Watkins, founder and president, make the rounds Friday at the Richland Farmers Market to leave plastic boxes for venders to fill with produce. Food collected goes to area food banks.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The diverse collection of fresh fruit and vegetables that vendors at the Market at the Parkway donate after the close of each Friday has been a godsend to area food banks, officials say.

Vendors at the Richland farmers market, as well as those at the Pasco and Southridge farmers markets, have been filling black plastic bins with healthy produce for Fields of Grace all summer long.

Fields of Grace volunteers then deliver the produce to local food banks, where it is given to hungry Tri-City families.

So far this year, food donated by the market vendors has amounted to more than 16,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, said Alissa Watkins, founder and president of Fields of Grace, a gleaning nonprofit whose volunteers harvest leftover, edible fruits and vegetables after farmers and homeowners have picked all they want.

She estimates that farmers markets last week brought in another 2,500 pounds.

The nonprofit's volunteers first started collecting food after the Market at the Parkway last August, after a serendipitous meeting between Watkins and market manager Kathy Hanson.

Hanson, a farmer who started at the market as a vendor, said she had always wished there was something she could do with perfectly good produce she didn't want to haul home once the market was over.

Fields of Grace has been the simple, dependable answer to something Hanson and market vendors hoped for.

"They are incredible generous in what they donate," Watkins said.

It's been a boon to the nonprofit because volunteers are able to gather a wide variety of food all at once, she said.

The produce from Fields of Grace has come in handy for the Tri-Cities Food Banks in Kennewick, Richland and Benton City.

John Neill, the food banks' executive director, said they've had difficulty getting enough fresh produce recently to distribute to a couple of hundred families each weekday.

And, "Fields of Grace is a godsend for us because we get quality stuff," he said.

Pasco's Tri-City Union Gospel Mission also has received some of the produce donated by farmers market vendors. Jerry Jones, the mission's food services manager, said every bit of produce is helpful. Anything not consumed by the men, women and children living at the mission is given away each Thursday to about 100 families, he said.

Having the farmers market produce has been especially helpful this year because the late spring frost and other weather conditions hit some farmers who normally allow Fields of Grace volunteers to glean their fields, Watkins said.

Most of what is gleaned is taken to Second Harvest Tri-Cities, a nonprofit that acts as a food bank to area food banks, she said.

The farmers market donations are an aspect to the Fields of Grace programs that Watkins and Hanson hope to continue next year.

"We do not want anything going to waste," Watkins said.

So far this year, the nonprofit has harvested and gathered nearly 125,000 pounds of produce, she said. That brings the group to a total of 819,000 pounds of produce, almost 2.4 million servings, since the group started in 2006. For more information or if interested in volunteering, go to www.fields-of-grace.com. Volunteers are always needed, and training is offered at gleaning events.

Homeowners who have vegetable gardens or fruit trees with excess can contact residential@fields-of-grace.com to donate.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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