By Carlos Rico
Ten years ago, Nita Kurmins Gilson started a grassroots program with friends to collect excess fruits from neighbors’ trees that were falling to the ground. They then took the produce to the North County Food Bank and Feeding San Diego. The goal of the “CropSwap” program was to bring the surplus of fruits that were going to be thrown away to those that needed it.
After five years of leading the CropSwap program, while still working as a graphic designer, Gilson teamed up with Jerilyn and Alexandra White to start the nonprofit ProduceGood in 2014. Their goal was to continue and expand the CropSwap program, but also add new produce recovery programs to raise awareness of food waste and food insecurities.
“Forty percent of food produced goes uneaten,” said Gilson, co-founder of ProduceGood. “One in six people in San Diego do not know where their next meal is coming from. This is a ridiculous, solvable problem.”
ProduceGood has three programs: CropSwap, Market Share and Community Orchard. They are all geared towards meeting the nonprofits goals of food conservation, education and community involvement. This comprehensive approach to preventing food waste while nourishing people in need and providing meaningful volunteer service to individuals and groups is the reason why companies like San Diego Gas & Electric have provided grant funding to ProduceGood.
The CropSwap program collects produce from 121 local growers and farmers who donate fruits and vegetables. In exchange they get a tax write-off, and the satisfaction of knowing their food is feeding people, not the landfill.
ProduceGood works with both Feeding San Diego and San Diego Food bank, who provide containers and transport for the gleaned fruit, which can be up to 8,000 pounds picked in one morning.
Market Share is the food recovery program, with the help of numerous volunteers, that collects unsold produce at farmers markets in Hillcrest, La Jolla, Leucadia and Solana Beach. They gather 1,000-1,500 pounds. each Sunday and transport to local partner organizations that same day, via volunteer drivers and their two vans called “The Fruit-Loopers.”
“We deliver the produce we collect that same day to our partners, so they can distribute the same day to those that need the produce,” Gilson said.
Community Orchard is the third program and acts as the volunteer service engine that drives all that ProduceGood does. This program helps find and coordinate the approximately 900 volunteers that deliver the mission and goals of the nonprofit.
“ProduceGood is not a direct distributor,” Gilson said. “We simply collect the excess produce and transport it to the food banks and other nonprofits partners we work with, who then distribute to those who need fruits and vegetables. We move food from the excess to the need”
One of the 22 partner organizations ProduceGood works with is the nonprofit Community Resource Center, in Encinitas, which collects and distributes food to people experiencing homelessness and families living in lower income communities.
Yanira Frias, food and nutrition program manager at the Community Resource Center, said they get fruits and vegetables once a month from ProduceGood.
“We receive great looking produce,” Frias said. “The fact that they deliver the produce to us, and we do not have to go and pick it up, is a huge help. They have great volunteers that stay and help and unload the produce as well. Their communication is really good, and they run a great operation.”
Since 2010, Gilson and ProduceGood has recovered 455,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables; provided 1.4 million servings of produce to local food banks and pantries; and diverted 225 tons of edible fruits and vegetables from landfills. All this with roughly 900 volunteers and three full-time employees.
“We look at ourselves as connectors, and we take food to where it’s needed,” Gilson said. “We have enough food to feed those that need it in San Diego, but we do require more access points and help transporting all the produce collected.”
Gilson started gathering excess fruits and vegetables from her neighbors because of conversations with her daughter 10 years ago.
“My daughter was a serious reader and read a lot about the environment and how (people) were hurting the planet,” Gilson said. “My daughter would ask ‘why do people hurt the planet and what can we do to help?’”
Gilson continued to say that she was bothered that so many oranges and lemons fell from the trees in her neighborhood and that no one was doing anything about it. “So, I started to collect the excess fruits with friends before they were wasted and brought them to local food banks in the North County,” Gilson stated. “I wanted to show her that we should never give up hope. This was one thing I could do.”
This led to the CropSwap program and now the nonprofit.
Produce Good works with not only food distribution banks, but also food kitchens as well. One of these partners is Kitchens for Good, a nonprofit with the mission to break the cycles of food waste, hunger and poverty, through workforce training, healthy food production and social enterprise.
Lorne “Hammer” Jones is the lead cook for the Youth Meal Program at Kitchens for Good. He takes the donated produce and creates meals that Jones says are “nutritious and delicious” to young children that cannot afford a meal after school.
“What makes ProduceGood a great partner is first and foremost their team of volunteers,” Jones said. “Anytime you are doing any kind of work, you have to find good, quality of people and ProduceGood has that. They are young, they are passionate, they are inspiring, and they believe in their cause. It’s a blessing to work with them.”
Jones added his team uses their “culinary flair” and curate special recipes using the fruits and vegetables donated by ProduceGood that young children will enjoy. One example is a broccolini lasagna with a lemon sauce.
Moving forward Gilson is planning to start classes on food waste food insecurities next year, to educate the public and help with the issue of food waste and hungry in San Diego.
“Raising awareness about food insecurities and food waste is not easy to do,” Gilson said. “It’s really about educating the community by word of mouth and with the help of our partners.”
Gilson added: “Food gets wasted if it drops from a tree or doesn’t look pretty at the grocery store. We really need to change that perception of what fruits and vegetables are supposed to look like. Imperfect looking produce is OK.”
Gilson also believes that we need to change our buying habits and not buy in bulk just because it’s a good price.
“We should only buy what we are going to consume for the next few days,” Gilson explained. “Chances are the produce is going to go bad because we don’t eat it fast enough, and it will end up in the landfills.”
Gilson says what’s been the most rewarding aspect of her journey so far with ProduceGood has been the feedback the entire team has received.
“We started getting letters from those that were receiving our produce,” Gilson said. “The letters were so powerful. Some people had diabetes. They were so grateful that we were able to provide them with fresh and healthy produce. To directly impact individuals who are in need, there is nothing better.”
If you would like to volunteer, donate or find out more about ProduceGood, you can visit producegood.org