On Food: Gary Maxworthy’s Farm to Family has redefined the way food banks work
Food issues in the U.S. are often shaped by frustrating paradoxes: We produce an excess of food — yet there are still 50 million people living in food-insecure households; we consume more calories than any previous time in our nation’s history, yet we are getting sicker. Gary Maxworthy launched a second career crafting solutions out of these disconnects. His Farm to Family organization distributes produce that would often be wasted to people in need. In 2000, he found a new way to connect growers, packers and distributors, redirecting edible produce that supermarkets wouldn’t stock to food banks. Now his program accounts for 21% of the produce distribution in California. Over 500,000 people in need receive Farm to Family fresh fruits and vegetables every week. Below he discusses his encore career, purposeful work in the second half of life, and the infrastructure needed to mend our broken food system.
Dowser: Tell me a bit about how Farm to Family came about.
Maxworthy: In the late 90s the food industry really tightened up — it was the big super stores, the Walmarts, really squeezing the supply chain, they squeezed out fat, and donations to food banks started to slow down.
I started to try to work with produce packers and growers to take excess produce that growers weren’t selling, culls, to distribute to food banks. And we took whatever we could get at the time. Growers were willing to donate, but it had to be in quantity — in truck-loads not small pick-ups.
I built a collaboration of 11 food banks — we needed a collaboration because there wasn’t one food bank that could absorb a truckload of produce and move it quickly enough. Soon it became a real functioning partnership. We started in 2000 and in the first year we distributed half a million pounds of produce.
Is anything wrong with the culls?
It is all good product, these culls, the seconds; you’d be very happy eating it.
One really great program we’ve started, is working with row crops. There are two ways that you pack and ship product. You can pick it like a peach and then send it out to a packing shop and then to stores. The other way is how you pick cauliflower, and broccoli; they actually pick and pack in the field as one operation.
I was out in the field last Friday and there was a huge truck. They cut the cauliflower, picked it, put it on the conveyor belt to the truck and people in the back of this thing were washing, cleaning, wrapping and bagging, and then off it goes.
What they [pickers] don’t use; what they think supermarkets won’t buy; they just leave it in the field. We take that leftover product. We just pay for the money spent to harvest and then we can distribute to food banks. This stuff it is good stuff! I brought one home myself to cook for dinner — a gigantic head of cauliflower — it was picked that morning!
The organization has gone from delivering half a million pound of produce to food banks to 100 million pounds of produce. Can you tell me about the process of scaling up?
It’s been a gradual process. We started with just getting donations [from growers]. Then we started to go for onions, potatoes, carrots, pears and apples; and with most of these we had to purchase. Culled apples, for example, can be sold for juice. So we passed that cost down to each food bank participating. At that time, we were just in northern California.
By 2005 we were at 10 million [pounds of produce distributed a year]. We wanted to expand to cover the whole state. We put a person in the lower part of California to access crops and distribution channels there.
Today we distribute over 70 different crops through 120 different packers and growers. Food banks fundraise and they pay for the cost of the produce, at an average of 6 cents a pound.
So the system works by using economies of scale?
Using economies of scale and collaboration. We have food banks that take 15 truckloads while others can only take 3 bins; so collaboration is critical.
Was it difficult to get food banks to collaborate?
I am most proud of that aspect. I could see when I first got into this [industry] there is a mentally that says X food bank got a truckload of food so therefore I didn’t get it; it is a zero sum game. But the reality is you if work together, you get more. I started the program and when people saw, hey, maybe these people are doing something right; they wanted to join in.
By 2000 everyone wanted to join in to protect themselves, and to have access to fresh produce. The mantra is, nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. It is a real value to the community. In food deserts in San Francisco, some neighborhoods don’t have access to supermarkets. By working together we can get that fresh food and produce into those communities.
What prompted you to launch an encore career?
Actually it was a very easy decision. Money was never the drive, it was always about making something happen.
Initially I joined the San Francisco Food Bank and I worked for $7,000 for the first year. They asked me to be on the board and I’ve been working with food groups ever since.
Five out of six Farm to Family employees are encore workers, and they are often former farmers themselves, why do you employ so many encore workers?
The produce business is like any business; it is centered around connections. Because the produce business is very rural by design, personal relationships are everything. When we started, we wanted people that knew the area and knew the other growers working in the community. We weren’t set up to train people; it was all on a shoe-string budget. So having a person in the local area, with local knowledge is of great value. There are a lot of people out there that want to do something of value. We’ve gotten great people and they don’t go away.
Are you looking to expand to other states?
We are working outside of the state and we are also committed to the local food banks. We are starting to work with food banks in Arizona and Las Vegas and focusing now on states surrounding California. We are going to do 102 million [pounds of produce] this year. We’ve set a goal of doubling that in five years.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Farm to Family