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Boosting Fresh Produce Distribution Across the Western Slope

a person picking peppers in a field
CSU Western Colorado Research Center intern Taylor Mayeda helps harvest chile peppers grown in partnership with Food Bank of the Rockies’ Culturally Responsive Food Initiative. / Photo by Jeremy Poland

Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center had a problem with surplus fruit. Food Bank of the Rockies was looking for more fresh produce. The solution? A mutually beneficial, community-focused solution.

“Each year, we have about 30,000 pounds of excess fruit that must be harvested and distributed in a matter of weeks,” said Amanda McQuade, program coordinator for the CSU research center’s Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief. “At our production level, there would be no way for us to get all of our food out to the community without Food Bank of the Rockies.”

To achieve its goal of advancing knowledge in the agricultural, biological, soil- and water-related sciences, the center operates three research stations across the Western Slope. The Rogers Mesa station near Hotchkiss focuses on organic agriculture related to fruit production, wine grapes, and vegetable seeds. The Grand Valley station near Fruita studies irrigation management, water resources, agronomy, and integrated cropping systems. And the Orchard Mesa Research Station outside of Grand Junction conducts research on tree fruits, wine grapes, and ornamental horticulture.

peper fields
In 2021, Orchard Mesa Research Station grew a variety of produce for Food Bank of the Rockies. The research station largely relies on volunteers to harvest the fruits and vegetables. / Photo by Jeremy Poland

It’s the tree-fruit operation that creates the greatest surplus. Research on growing peaches, apples, cherries, and other fruit requires numerous trees to test different varieties. But little of the fruit produced is actually used in the research. As a result, plenty of good fruit is available at harvest. And until the research center partnered with Food Bank of the Rockies, that fruit didn’t have anywhere to go.

McQuade first got involved with the Western Colorado Research Center in 2009. Back then, she was operating her own volunteer program to provide vegetables to area food pantries and looking for innovative ways to get fresh food to people who needed it most. While researching options, she met the Western Colorado Research Center’s manager, Greg Litus, and the two began collaborating.

In 2016, when Litus began his own investigation into ways to distribute surplus fruit to the community without competing with local growers, he hired McQuade to oversee the program that eventually became the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief. Together, Litus and McQuade reached out to Food Bank of the Rockies and a partnership to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to Western Slope community members struggling with hunger was born in 2017.

On average, CSU’s Western Colorado Research Center harvests around 90,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables every year. Of that bounty, roughly 60% goes to Food Bank of the Rockies for distribution. The remaining 40% is delivered directly to nine Food Bank of the Rockies Hunger Relief Partners throughout the Western Slope, such as Catholic Outreach or Clifton Christian Church, Homeward Bound of the Grand Valley, and Mutual Aid Partners, to directly distribute to their clients.

Each year, the Community Alliance hires two paid interns, usually local college students, to assist with the vegetable gardens and fruit distribution. Additionally, volunteers from around the community help with planting, weeding, and harvesting the produce.

a basket of red peppers
As part of the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative, clients were interviewed about what types of food they’d like to receive from Food Bank of the Rockies. On the Western Slope, chile peppers were one of the most requested items. / Photo by Jeremy Poland

In 2021, the Alliance took their partnership with the Food Bank one step further and began collaborating with us on our Culturally Responsive Food Initiative (CRFI), which is designed to tailor food options to the cultural food preferences of our clients. Through the program, the Alliance grew tomatillos, cilantro, and hot peppers to see what worked best.

“We feel really confident that if we provide wholesome, fresh food and add some culturally preferred items, we will meet the clients’ needs,” said McQuade.

With that in mind, the three research stations this year will test different varieties of tomatillos and new varieties of peppers. They also will examine different, regionally adapted seeds in the hope they will better meet the needs of area clients. Additionally, the Alliance will continue surveying clients of the nine Hunger Relief Partners who utilize the CRFI produce about what foods they desire most. “People who use food pantries are consumers, too,” McQuade noted. “They should have their opinions heard.”

One of the Alliance interns, who was hired for the entire year, is spending the off-season working on nutrition education with some of the food pantries’ clients. “We don’t dictate a diet to them,” McQuade said, “but we try to show them how they can use everything available through the Food Bank to have a nourishing diet.”

McQuade knows that 90,000 pounds of fresh food and vegetables her program supplies each year is a relatively small amount compared to the more than 110 million pounds of food that Food Bank of the Rockies distributed in fiscal year 2021. But in conjunction with our programs, those 90,000 pounds help fill a critical need.

“Sixty percent of food-insecure people are dealing with reduced quality of food,” she said. “So the fresh produce we provide really contributes to food quality and quality of life.”

To support our efforts in providing fresh, nutritious produce and foods to our Western Slope neighbors in need, please consider donating or volunteering today.

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