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Dallas group dispenses free produce as COVID-19 fallout surges

Dallas group dispenses free produce as COVID-19 fallout surges

Harvest Project
Photo courtesy of Harvest Project

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out acts of kindness around Dallas, many related to that most crucial area: putting food on the table.

The North Texas Food Bank is hosting free food pop-ups. American Airlines just donated food from its inflight service and Admirals Club lounges, now closed, to food banks such as Equal Heart in Dallas, Minnie's Food Pantry in Dallas, and the Tarrant Area Food Bank in Fort Worth.

One volunteer-run nonprofit, Harvest Project Food Rescue, which distributes free produce, has seen an uptick in beneficiaries, says executive director Danaë Gutiérrez Martínez.

"Prior to the virus, we had about 10,000 people we were helping monthly, but now each event has double or triple the number of families coming," Martinez says. "When the virus first arrived, some people were coming because grocery stores were running out. Now it's starting to be people who've lost their jobs."

Martinez and co-founder Luis Carrillo founded the Harvest Project Food Rescue as a community project to help underserved communities in Dallas.

"Our program provides fresh produce to families in need at no cost," Martinez says. "We 'rescue' food that otherwise would have been thrown away. There's nothing wrong with the food, it just doesn't meet the criteria of supermarkets or other companies who would have bought it."

A good example: a banana. "Grocery stores buy bananas that are mostly green," she says. "If it's already yellow and ripe, they won't buy it, even though it's still good."

Harvest Project works with distributors like Orchard At The Office to get produce before it gets dumped. Then they give it away in parking lot events at churches and communities in food deserts.

Martinez says she suffered food insecurity when she was young, and was driven to get involved. She started in her community, attracted like-minded volunteers, and the initiative grew.

They focus specifically on produce, which requires that they be nimble.

"Food pantries do bread and canned goods which are not as perishable, but we focus on produce," she says. "Fresh produce is hard to work with because you have such a small window."

This means rallying volunteers to show up in a drive-by operation and disseminate pallets of, say, lettuce. "It's always different based on time of the year and what's in season," she says.

Part of their mission has been teaching the volunteers to look at food in a different way.

"In a whole box of tomatoes, 60 percent might be good enough for people to eat," she says. "But we never see anything as 'rotten.' There's a food hierarchy: for people to eat, for animals, and for compost. Rather than 'it's disgusting,' the idea is to look at it as 'good for compost.' It all has value."

To accommodate their growth, they've started a venture called Wholesale Wholesale, where they sell 30 pounds of produce for $35, with a mix of items such as avocado, tomatoes, lemons, onions, something different every week, delivered free to people's homes in Dallas.

"At least 40 percent of the produce in Dallas doesn't even reach grocery stores," Martinez says. "This not only helps people, it helps not to waste food."