Ending food waste one tomato at a time

Volunteers set up a farmer’s market on Jan. 27, 2018 in Tucson. (Photograph by: Sara Harelson)

A tomato grows in Mexico. After being plucked from the vine, shipped into the United States, and placed on a shelf, it lies in wait. Some don’t even make it to the shelf. If the tomato isn’t purchased, it’s off to the landfill.  

Some find salvation.  

One woman has dedicated the last 20-plus years to her passion project meant to help solve this waste problem and secure peoples’ access to the basic human right of a healthy diet.

“I didn’t even know what a food bank was, but I took the job because I needed it and I always worked with social justice,” says Yolanda Soto, president and CEO of Borderlands Food Bank, a non-profit in Arizona. “Now we’ve been here for 23 years and are feeding people nutritiously and curbing food waste.”  

Soto, who then was a single mom raising five kids and had just lost her job, needed to bring some money in. She took the job at Borderlands without knowing how to run a food bank. Soto was raised in Nogales, Arizona, and was aware of the catastrophic waste issue because she grew up in town. She connected the dots and made it her mission to give a fresh face to food banks.

Yolonda Soto, President and CEO of Borderlands Food Bank. (Photo courtesy of Borderlands Food Bank)

Borderlands, a nonprofit based out of Nogales, rescues produce and distributes it to people in need. But her mission has proved beneficial to many more than just those in need. It is a mission to save the planet and help thy neighbor. When she took the job, Borderlands’ new direction to rescue unused produce and resell it back to consumers was born.

Borderlands’ trucks visit Southern Arizona to save all different types of produce. The produce is edible but ugly. Distributers cannot sell it because of its appearance, shape or discoloration. Soto knows it is still food. Her “non-traditional” food bank rescues more than 30 million pounds of fresh produce every year and has saved 559 million pounds to date.

Volunteers pick up the hundreds of thousand of pounds of produce from the warehouse in Nogales and take them to the host sites. For $10, shoppers can take home 60 pounds of produce to feed their friends and families. Many of these families do not have access to fruits and vegetables because food stamps do not cover them and buying produce at a grocery is incredibly expensive.  

A lack of access to fresh and affordable produce affects millions in this country, according to a study done by The Food Trust called “The Grocery Gap.”

“Accessing healthy food is a challenge for many Americans — particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas,”  says the study, which credits the problem to a lack of supermarkets, predominance of corner stores and liquor stores, and low income. Borderlands-affiliated farmer’s markets in low-income neighborhoods make buying produce affordable. 

So now people have access, but what’s the next step? For many shoppers, this may be the first time they see an eggplant or attempt to cook a squash.

“We want to set up a nutritional program by setting up sites at the powwows and setting up cooking stations to show people how to cook and eat produce that isn’t native to them,” says Soto.

She is trying to recruit local chefs willing to give up their time to help educate people, but Soto says more volunteers and people passionate about the issue are needed to help spread the word.

Soto is concerned people get the wrong impression and believe the food she gathers is only for the poor. “It’s hard to educate people on letting them know everyone is welcome and it’s their responsibility to help curb food waste,” says Soto.

An example of the produce available for purchase at P.O.W.W.O.W. (Photograph by Sara Harelson)

Borderlands’ goal is to fight waste. Of the 30 to 40 million pounds of produce the food bank saves, only 13 percent is wasted. Of that, only 8 percent goes to the landfill because of partnerships with cattle farmers who pick some slack, and Compost Cats, a UA program that digs composting.

Twenty-three other states run programs similar to Borderlands. When produce isn’t purchased in Arizona, it’s sent to them.

 Soto hopes investors will help them expand their work.  “We all have an obligation to save Mother Earth and to help our neighbors,” she says.

If you’re interested in volunteering with, donating to or buying from Borderlands Food Bank, visit the website here: http://www.borderlandsfoodbank.org

Sara Harelson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at saraharelson@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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