How a Farm-to-Food Bank Partnership Helps Feed the Hungry

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Chris Hughes of Crossville runs Hughes Farms; photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Chris Hughes had already been giving away bags of “imperfect” green beans to those in need when the folks at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee contacted him. Would he be willing to donate the discarded vegetables on a broader scale?

No problem, said Hughes, owner of Hughes Farms & Produce in Crossville, the largest green bean operation in the state. “We just wanted to help our fellow man,” he says, “you know, the one that’s just not as blessed as what maybe we would be.”

Hughes’ blood has been running green since he began growing the beans for his father-in-law’s packinghouse in 1980. About 10 years ago, he bought his own facility and started distributing to chain grocers such as Publix, Kroger and Winn-Dixie. Butter beans and pink-eyed peas round out the operation, but green beans – about 2,000 acres of them – dominate the fields, making Hughes Farms the largest grower in the region.

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Crossville, where most of the state’s market-ready green beans come from, provides the perfect combination of climate and soil, Hughes says. “It’s a little bit cooler [than other parts of Tennessee]. Plus, our elevation just makes for cooler nights during the summer.”

Even so, a few years ago Hughes found himself scrapping up to 3 million pounds of beans each year that, because they were too short or broke during mechanized picking, were unsuitable for retail sales and had to be thrown away. When organizers at Second Harvest found out about the dilemma, they reached out to Hughes.

“We believe diverting nutrient-rich food from landfills is a major weapon in the fight against hunger,” says Nancy Kell-Culbertson, Second Harvest’s marketing director. “According to Feeding America, 70 billion pounds of food is wasted each year through conventional farming and business practices.”

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

In keeping with its mission of feeding the hungry and working to solve hunger issues in the community, in recent years Nashville-based Second Harvest started aggressively working with retailers to salvage millions of pounds of perishable food. The Green Bean Project simply took that mission a step further.

In the summer of 2015, Hughes installed a third unique processing line to sort the less-than-perfect pods from the whole ones, with Second Harvest raising the funds to pay for it. He describes the low-maintenance system, which moves the string vegetables around the packinghouse through a tube filled with water, as “ingenious.” The broken beans are then chilled and packaged in bin boxes to be transported to Second Harvest, where they are sorted into two-pound bags and distributed to local families throughout Middle Tennessee.

“Some days we may pack 20 or 30 bins,” Hughes says, noting that rain or drought can greatly impact how many green beans are harvested and processed at the farm. “It depends on the volume that we have coming through the packinghouse.”

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

No Beans About It

Along with the innovations, however, came challenges. Because green beans deteriorate quickly, they must be properly cooled and sanitized. The first year, Second Harvest volunteers gathered in nonprofit parking lots to chill the beans in small wading pools before sorting and bagging. “It didn’t take us long to recognize that this method is not an optimal long-term solution for the large quantity of beans available,” Kell-Culbertson says. Hughes Farms now cools the vegetables prior to transport.

In 2016, Second Harvest rescued and distributed 63,750 pounds of fresh green beans through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers, group homes and other nonprofit agencies, and made another 360,000 pounds available to nine area Feeding America network food banks. Second Harvest has conducted similar programs with tomatoes and sweet potatoes, but the Green Bean Project is its largest vegetable-recovery effort to date.

“The ultimate benefit of the Green Bean Project is that fresh produce is made available to agencies that feed the 400,000 food-insecure people in our area,” Kell-Culbertson says. “This nutrition-rich food often replaces cheap and less healthy foods typical to the low-income diet.”

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

In the future, Second Harvest organizers hope to find a way to preserve the donated green beans to reduce even more waste.

The Green Bean Project, Kell-Culbertson points out, “was not easy to make work. But because we have overcome greater challenges before to bring food from farm to families, Second Harvest leadership was willing – even eager – to spend the time and effort to win the benefit for clients and the overall community. Without that vision and determination, volunteers would still be cooling beans in wading pools, or we would never have reached out to Hughes Farms in the first place.”

Despite the learning curve and other early speed bumps, the effort has been “well worth it” for Hughes.

“We’ve had calls from people that [our beans] have gone to, and they just thanked us for what we do. They appreciated the product that they were getting and what they were going to be able to do with them. It’s rewarding to hear that our product can help people.”

By the Numbers

production value of Tennessee’s snap beans

acres of snap beans grown in Tennessee

acres of beans grown on Hughes Farms in Crossville

pounds of beans grown on Hughes Farms each year

pounds of fresh green beans salvaged from Hughes Farms and distributed through Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee

pounds of green beans distributed through nine other food banks

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