Erwin and Carey Styma pose with a photo of Yvonne Styma, the matriarch of the family, and some of the potatoes their farm has sold to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint, Mich.

Erwin and Carey Styma pose with a photo of Yvonne Styma, the matriarch of the family, and some of the potatoes their farm has sold to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint, Mich.

Farmer Carey Styma is passionate about potatoes and believes even those tasty, “cosmetically challenged” ones shouldn’t go to waste. So when the 2014 growing season triggered more potato skin blemishes than usual, the Michigan food bank system took the spuds. Styma, of Styma Potato Farms, estimates her family donated about 4.3 million pounds of that year’s potato crop in 10-pound bags to the Food Bank Council of Michigan. The council distributes to seven Michigan food banks that in turn provide food to thousands of stationary and mobile food pantries serving nearly 1.8 million clients each year. “You hear the saying to take lemons and turn them into lemonade, and I feel the same way about this,” Styma says. “We are proud we can facilitate the process to provide a product for people. It may not be perfect to the eye, but nothing is holding back on the taste.”
The Food Bank Council of Michigan received more than 17 million pounds of produce during fiscal year 2015, the vast majority from Michigan farms, says Kath Clark, food programs manager. In addition to produce, the Michigan Milk Producers Association donated 23,000 gallons of milk in 2015, which Prairie Farms processed for the food banks. “The relationship that we have with our farmers makes a tremendous difference to our food banks,” Clark says. “To be able to provide fresh, wholesome produce to people in need is really one of the most rewarding things we can do.”
Terry Nix, operations manager at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, poses with some of the produce at his organization.

Terry Nix, operations manager at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, poses with some of the produce at his organization.

Securing Food

Rooted in frugality, Styma’s mother-in-law realized years ago that their family farm needed to find a home for their blemished potatoes. She knew ones with cuts or dents would bake, boil or fry the same as any perfect potato. With that, she contacted the Food Bank and a relationship blossomed. “It’s all about having relationships with those farmers and being able to call people like the Stymas when a Food Bank needs potatoes and is running low during Thanksgiving week,” Clark says. “People like that come through for us time and time again with great product that might not be able to move through the traditional market.” The Food Bank Council of Michigan acquires Michigan-grown produce through three main programs. Since 1990, the council has partnered with the State of Michigan to receive Michigan Agricultural Surplus System grants. The annual grant, valued at $1.27 million, allows the Council to accept produce donations from farms and reimburse the farms for trucking, packaging and labor. With this program, more than 9 million pounds of produce enter the food bank network each year instead of going to waste.

Volunteers sort and box apples for distribution.

Volunteers sort and box apples for distribution.

The Michigan Farm to Food Bank program, which the Food Bank Council of Michigan self funds, provides each of the seven food banks in Michigan $20,000 in matching grants to contract with Michigan farms within 100 miles. This program allows food banks to request specific produce that aligns with dietary preferences of their clients. A grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund allows the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s purchase of an additional 8 million pounds of fresh produce and educates clients about cooking and preparation methods.

Meanwhile, some food banks operate their own farms. The West Michigan Food Bank grows three acres of sweet corn, while Forgotten Harvest Food Bank grows produce on a 92-acre farm in Livingston County. “The farmers’ willingness to work with us on price and make sure people have what they need to live a healthier lifestyle is paramount,” Clark says. “We are fortunate to have such amazing support from Michigan farmers. We couldn’t do it without them.”
See Also:  Michigan Ag in the Classroom

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