‘Hunger never takes a holiday’: How the Farm adjusts to shifting food supply chain in the midst of a pandemic

July 17, 2020, 7:50 a.m.

Lindsay Filgas ’22 started to walk away from the tomato vine she had spent the past 10 minutes picking. Just as she took a step to the next one, a red dot caught the corner of her eye — a missed cherry tomato. As she pushed a foreground vine back to grab the straggler, more unpicked tomatoes seemed to appear out of thin air. She chuckled. Even though there always seemed to be 100 tomatoes left unpicked, she liked the experience of being in the fields, getting to know the people she harvested with and learning more about agriculture.

“Even as someone who’s interested in agriculture, I still know very little about it, so every time we’re out there, it’s a learning experience,” Filgas said.

Stanford Roots, formerly known as Stanford Farmers, is an organization of students interested in agriculture. Filgas helped harvest produce at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm once a week in a program spearheaded by Stanford Roots Vice President Kana Cummings ’22. The club hosts events, like cooking workshops and Harvest Festivals, aimed at educating the campus community on agriculture. Filgas says that, although tomatoes were the crop the club helped harvest most frequently, she also enjoyed picking radishes, kale, cauliflower and raspberries. 

But harvesting looks a little different on the Farm now. O’Donohue’s Farm Facility and Production Coordinators Allison Bauer and William Chen, deemed essential workers, are allowed to continue harvesting, but without the help of students and volunteers. They now offset shifts in the fields and in the office in order to minimize contact. If they have to overlap for any reason, or if anybody else is present on the farm, they wear masks.

The farm

As part of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Science, the six-acre O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm’s main purpose is to teach the Stanford community about organically grown food. The farm’s produce is sold either to the various dining halls on campus or shared with the students or volunteers. Any excess is donated through A La Carte, a non-profit food truck, to organizations like Loaves & Fishes, a soup kitchen in San Jose.  

“They really are a community-oriented farm, in my opinion,” Filgas said. “They are involved with people who volunteer there and who eat that food; they really get to know the community.”

Bauer explained that the farm grows over 50 types of vegetables in addition to newer orchards containing fruit and both edible and decorative flowers. 

Each year, the farm’s staff meets with chefs from the dining halls to collaboratively create a diverse crop plan. This variety prevents disease and allows visitors to experience agriculture in all its multiplicity. 

After the University sent students home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford Roots was forced to go virtual. Undeterred, the club’s focus turned to discussing the intersections of COVID-19, food waste and agricultural workers’ rights. 

“The main thing we talked about was the way that the public perception of agricultural workers was shifting in the sense that they were seen as essential workers,” Filgas said. “We talked a lot about how there’s a lot of racial injustice in that, and a lot of agricultural workers are more low income and have less privilege than a lot of us who are staying home and staying safe.”

Both Bauer and Chen have an abundance of previous harvesting experience, so they have been able to adapt to no volunteers on the farm relatively easily. But they still miss the physical presence of the Stanford community.

“It’s really fun to be able to share the experience with other people and give them the opportunity to harvest,” Bauer said. “I think it’s harder for us knowing people are not able to be here when they want to be here. We get calls from our volunteers all the time, and so I think hearing that is hard for us. We want them to be able to experience this place like us, too.”

When campus initially closed, the farm’s excess produce was donated to Loaves & Fishes. Dining halls like Arrillaga and Lakeside as well as Munger Kitchen’s campus catering were still ording produce, but between 50 to 100 pounds of produce were still being sent to the charity. 

Now that only Arrillaga remains open, the summer crop plan has been scaled back. The exact amount of food donated to Loaves & Fishes ebbs and flows depending on when produce is ready to harvest. 

Bauer says that the transition to a COVID-19 lifestyle was relatively smooth for the farm because of its pre-existing connections to A La Carte and Loaves & Fishes as well as strong communication with chefs in dining halls which stayed open. During this time, Stanford Roots members have acted as a middle man between the farm and Loaves & Fishes, organizing delivery drivers and asking exactly how much extra produce would be available in a specific week. 

“Because we had already had that program set up, it made it really easy for us to say, ‘Oh, if we have extra, we’ll just send it to them,’” Bauer said. “All we have to do is text them, and they’ll come that day or the next day to pick it up. So we are really lucky because of the system that was already created, and I think a big part of that is because of the students and by the chefs, too.”

The soup kitchen

And soup kitchens like Loaves & Fishes have needed that produce. David Hott, director of operations at Loaves & Fishes, said that the organization has needed to triple their meal output since COVID-19 hit in March. 

“We’re basically frontline workers,” Hott said. “We had to figure out how we make sure that our team is safe while still supporting the communities that we serve.”

Because Loaves & Fishes is a food safety company first and foremost, they have added new layers to their already existing safety protocols. In order to balance these concerns with increased demand, the charity purchased an Oliver Meal Packaging System that allows meals to be distributed in a container similar to frozen dinners from the grocery store. 

Despite these precautions, Loaves & Fishes has seen a decrease in volunteers because of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

“Hunger never takes a holiday,” Hott said. “And if we’re out there helping to serve the community, I believe that it’s important that whomever is in need get the nutritious meals that we can provide.”

The pandemic has taken a financial toll on the charity. According to a March 14 letter from the CEO of Loaves & Fishes published on their website, the adaptations the organization has made comes with a $200,000 price tag.

“We always could use financial support to support our efforts,” Hott said. “We’re going to stand on the front lines to help support our community.”

Diversifying distribution 

The unique relationship between the farm, Stanford Roots and Loaves & Fishes is not always present throughout the country. Without the normal business from restaurants, hotels and schools, farmers are forced to destroy millions of pounds of produce even as food insecure communities grow. 

Some Stanford students, such as Stella Delp ’22 have responded to this challenge, founding FarmLink to act as the middleman between farms and food banks that was missing from the food supply chain.

Now, they have grown to a team of 100 full-time volunteers operating in 29 states and have transported five million pounds of produce.

Delp is currently staying with other members of FarmLink in Idaho to help their “favorite potato farmer,” Doug Hess, and his potato farm. 

Hess’s farm has been passed down through generations; he is currently sitting on millions of pounds of potatoes because his contract with a processing plant that would turn them into french fries was disrupted by COVID-19. Unlike the O’Donohue family farm, he did not have pre-existing connections with charities or food banks, and without FarmLink the potatoes would have gone to waste. 

FarmLink was able to send the potatoes west to Food Finders, a food bank in Los Angeles. Delp estimates that the truck she saw at Food Finders held about 16 pallets of Hess’s potatoes. 

“What we’re finding is a lot of farms and processing plants actually pay landfills to get rid of their waste every single month,” Delp said. “If we could potentially interject ourselves there, we could bring food that maybe doesn’t meet the high standards of a corporate grocery store, but would definitely be nutritious to people looking to get food at a food bank.”

As restrictions losen and businesses begin to open across the nation, Filgas hopes that emphasizing community involvement in agriculture could reduce food waste around the country.

“COVID has highlighted that there are a lot of weak points in the food system, and that if we can make it more local while also making it more sustainable and more green, that would be ideal,” she said.

Bauer says that she has seen farms thrive when they have diverse crops and diverse avenues of distribution. Although she acknowledges that every farm is different because of different climates, she said that many farms are beginning to vary their avenues to include Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). In CSAs, members of a community pay farms directly upfront for a season of produce and pick up produce boxes every week. Although the O’Donohue family farm does not currently have a CSA program, boxes sold weekly through Munger Market include produce grown at the farm.

According to Hott, funding from the federal government also allows farms to continue operating despite donating the majority of their produce, effectively increasing soup kitchen and food bank donations.

“Programs like that… seem great because they are feeding people, the produce isn’t going to waste and then the farm is also getting money so they can continue going,” Bauer said. 

Delp said that the slowed economy is a great time for contributors to the food supply chain to reevaluate the systems that are disadvantaging communities and transform those systems to benefit everyone.

“We hope that there is a recognition of the communities that have been hurt by the supply chain and lack of acknowledgement,” she said. “Food banks are doing everything that they can and always have been to support those individuals, and it’s time for farmers and processing plants to do the same thing.”

Contact Alexandra Rozmarin at alexroz918 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Alexandra Rozmarin is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.

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