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This week, Irvine’s Tanaka Farms working with local businesses and nonprofits, formed an initiative named Helping Farms Feed Families with the goal of creating 500 packages filled with food for distribution at no cost to those in financial hardship.
Founder Glenn Tanaka pulled together the event in roughly a week with the help of over 30 volunteers. Tanaka’s involvement with both Orange Coast Optimist Club and Helping Farms charities provided the necessary funds to purchase surplus produce from farmers who have seen a drop in business (due to the coronavirus) that would otherwise go to waste.
Specifically, many local small farmers sell their goods directly to restaurants, schools and other institutional programs, and those outlets are ordering much less product, which means food is being left to rot in the fields. It’s not easy for those farmers to flip the switch to a retail format or a direct-to-consumer customer base.
The decision to leave crops to rot in the field is a complicated equation. “I do hear and read comments about ‘why a farmer will destroy a crop instead of giving it to the food bank or some other food pantry?’” explains Tanaka. “What people do not understand is that getting that crop harvested costs money, the container to put the product in costs money, the transportation to get it to where it goes costs money and depending upon how much product is available, where do you send it and how much can they store a perishable product requires someone’s time. Like any other business where margins are slim, it is unfortunate, but cost is a factor of getting a crop to where it is needed.”
So, rather than asking those farmers to donate their surplus to food banks, Tanaka has offered to buy the excess produce from them (good for the farmers), and then is turning around to give that produce for free directly to families in need (good for the community). Win win. Reviewing the emails to request packages was, “an emotionally charged task,” according to Tanaka Farms employee and vegan chef Joni Newman, who oversees their social media. They ended up offering packages to 520 families.
Tanaka offered to host the pick-up on his property because he is already set up for drive through service. They have been running an ad-hoc drive-thru produce stand set up in the middle of his parking lot for over a month.
Vehicles began arriving Thursday morning as early as 9:30 a.m. Drivers for the free care packages were directed to queue in a separate line from the produce stand queue, where volunteers were on hand to provide contactless delivery by loading bags filled with corn, cauliflower, onions and more into trunks.
Community care packages included produce from Tanaka, but also featured fresh squash from Irvine-based Manaserro Farms, sourdough loaves from Old Town Baking Company in the Inland Empire, milk from Ontario’s Batista Family Farm, potatoes and onions from Family Tree Produce out of Anaheim, strawberries from Rojo Farms in Ontario, plus kale from chef Adam Navidi’s (of Yorba Linda’s Oceans and Earth Restaurant, best known for their gluten-free cuisine) aquaponics farm. “It doesn’t surprise me (that) Tanaka Farms would step up to help the community in these unprecedented times. We’re proud to help serve them,” said Fidel Guzman, owner of Family Tree Produce.
Tanaka believes there are enough funds to buy more produce so that they can conduct this event up to four more times.
However, sourcing from Orange County farmers was difficult, as there were few to choose from. Local farmers have been slowly disappearing from Orange County since before the onset of the coronavirus. Tanaka plans to expand his search for farmers to Riverside County for the next round.
Tanaka has seen an uptick in produce sales since the coronavirus hit. “Our produce sales tripled not only because people wanted fresh produce, but because we instituted online pre-order sales and curbside pickup. Tanaka Farms is fortunate to have space available to change our farm market to a drive-thru, which has made our employee and customer contact minimal, making everyone feel safer and our popularity and sales go up.”
When the quarantine is lifted and residents are not required to stay home, Tanaka realizes people will be cooking less, and market business will not stay at its current level. “I am very concerned about our future,” says Tanaka. “As people start going back to work and restaurants begin to open up, our produce sales will decline as people won’t be cooking at home nearly as much and it will be more time-consuming driving to the farm.”
In recent years, Tanaka Farms pivoted operations to include tourism activities such as strawberry picking, farm tours and harvest festivals to help round out their offerings. “About 75% of our income (during normal times) is from agritourism and is not considered essential, and the spring is peak season for school tours,” said Tanaka. “We are missing 18,000 school children and the 14,000 teachers and parents that accompany them.”
Until then, they are focusing on the present, helping their friends in the farming community and helping families in need.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heide Janssen is the managing editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.