Veggie Rescue Turns Would-Be Farm Waste into Food

Nonprofit Delivers Fresh Fruits, Vegetables, and More to Santa Barbara County’s Needy

I’ve got my box of lettuce here,” says Amy Derryberry, almost adoringly, as she sets down a box of neatly packed leaves just outside the Solvang farmers’ market, where she’s been gleaning a wide variety of leftover fresh fruits and vegetables. She’s about to load it onto a truck and then deliver it directly to those in need, at no cost to the recipients.

As executive director of Veggie Rescue, Derryberry inspires the platitude that in helping others, we help ourselves. “It makes me so happy,” she said of distributing more than 720,000 pounds of locally grown, mostly organic food to county schools, senior centers, and shelters so far. That’s saved recipients more than $1.1 million so far in food costs.

Derryberry is careful to use the word “waste” when it comes to farm produce. “There’s excess by design,” she said of a farmer’s strategy to till under surplus produce to enrich the soil. “Fortunately, there’s enough excess that they can redirect some of it to the people who desperately need it and can’t afford it.”

Veggie Rescue’s work is much needed. According to California Food Policy Advocates, nearly 23 percent of adults in Santa Barbara County are labeled as food insecure or hungry. Veggie Rescue is addressing those statistics head-on, and not with the usual fare of sugary, processed, and canned foods.

“We all need better nutrition to keep us from getting sick,” explained Derryberry, who started as a volunteer with the organization. Veggie Rescue was founded by Terry and Holly Delaney after visiting a friend living at the Santa Barbara Salvation Army. When the Delaneys stopped by the kitchen, they noticed the intense lack of those vitamin-packed foods that help bodies in recovery. They started asking farmer friends for help.

Jeff Kramer at Ellwood Canyon Farms in Goleta gives a simple reason for his weekly donations. “The challenge for farmers is having the time to sort and deliver,” he said, explaining that Veggie Rescue removes those burdens from his team. Farmers can safely donate produce to nonprofits under Good Samaritan liability protection enacted during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Kramer said he is further encouraged by Veggie Rescue’s efficiency and easy partnership. “They even return our recyclable trays,” he said.

Derryberry has received a lot of positive feedback from their deliveries. “It’s really changing the palates of kids and what they become accustomed to,” she said. Many of those children may not be eating fresh produce at home, but they come to love it through the Orfalea Foundation’s scratch-cooked school meals programs and daily salad bars in county schools that Veggie Rescue helps stock with ingredients.

The elderly have also been a prime target. In an attempt to provide aging citizens with the nutrition needed to stay active and immune, Veggie Rescue bought the Buellton Senior Center a cooler and keeps it stocked. “Anyone can go by and get fresh produce,” said Derryberry of the high number of low-income seniors served by the center. “No questions asked.”

Veggie Rescue’s success has led to the recent addition of a second refrigerated truck. That comes directly on the heels of their new program aimed at collecting prepared foods, namely from large providers like the Chumash Casino Resort buffet. This is good news not only for food recipients but also for local landfills. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board (now CalRecycle), food is the largest single source of waste in California and makes up 15.5 percent of the state’s waste stream.

“We want to connect with ‘big ag’ and distribute it locally up in Santa Maria Valley, where there’s a huge need for it,” said Derryberry of her next goal. Currently, 99 percent of Santa Barbara County’s agriculture is exported, thanks in part to popular crops like wine grapes, strawberries, and broccoli, while 95 percent of the fruits and vegetables eaten in the county are imported. Derryberry hopes to flip those stats a bit.

Kevin Kemp is Veggie Rescue’s driver. He travels from Carpinteria to Santa Maria to pick up and deliver gleaned fruits from residential properties, farms, and prepared food outlets. “I’m getting a better understand of food waste,” he said, adding that they try to transport donations as few miles as possible. “A lot still falls through the cracks.”

As the Santa Ana winds rustle the leaves down Mission Drive, Derryberry takes a call. Someone wants to donate a pallet of overly ripe strawberries. “Strawberries are rare,” she said of the prized donation. “Our recipients will be so thrilled!”

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