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Yolanda Soto saw the need for Latino homes and families all across Arizona to have fresh produce to improve nutrition and fight obesity.
When Soto saw still-edible fresh produce being dumped into landfills every day, she had an idea for a fresh produce distribution program that rescues this food and provides it to food, insecure families.
The program, Produce on Wheels – With Out Waste (P.O.W.W.O.W), now gives families, churches, communities and schools more access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be considered garbage.
Food a Crisis in Nogales
Yolanda Soto started helping Latino families in food-insecure areas of Nogales, Ariz. (95% Latino) since January 1996, when she became executive director of Borderlands Food Bank, which targets local hunger issues.
In 2012, Borderlands became a division of the Diabetes Prevention and Aid Fund. Soto knew that food insecurity and diabetes go hand-in-hand and that families needed more than canned foods. They need fresh nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Throughout the years, Soto’s Borderlands group has collected food (often from nearby Sonora, Mexico) and distributed food to small agencies in Nogales and the Association of Arizona Food Banks.
“There’s lots of hunger, and lots of need for nutritious food,” said Soto in an article on Seedstock.
However, in 2007, her Borderlands group was not able to maintain these food-distribution relationships across the U.S.-Mexico border, and they lost state funding.
This created a loss of healthy food access for families in both the U.S. and Mexico, Soto said.
“Arizona families were not going to be receiving the produce they were used to receiving for many, many years,” Soto said.
The Arizona-Mexico border town of Nogales is the third-largest port of entry for fresh produce, where $4 billion worth of fruits and vegetables comes into the United States. However, 1 in 5 people in Arizona is food insecure.
Why is this the case?
After millions of pounds of fresh produce is sorted, and checked for quality, size, and shape standards through United States government groups, the rest is put into landfills. If the vegetables or fruits are not the right color, shape or size, or if food prices are fluctuating, the food goes to waste.
Latino households are more than twice as likely to be food insecure as non-Latino households, according to FeedingAmerica.org, and households with children are less likely to be receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, with only 10% receiving benefits compared to 40% as white, non-Latino households.
Soto explained in a National Public Radio (NPR) report that her organization couldn’t let this wasting of fresh produce amid the continuing trend of food insecurity.
Soto decided to try and start a service that would call local food distributors and ask them to notify her organization before they decide to dump food into the landfills. This way she could save the food and find ways to get that food quickly into the hands of families in need of access to fresh produce.
“[The food] loses its lifespan 10-15% per day, and so that’s when the determination is made, will it last, will it be good…for our program?” Soto said.
An Idea for Help
When one of the agencies, the 3000 Club, found out about the gap for families in need in Arizona, they decided to step up and help Soto distribute the foods collected by Borderlands again for Arizona families through their program, Market on the Move (MOM).
MOM would establish host sites to help distribute the food to needy families, but Soto would still be rescuing food from landfills through calling and collecting the produce before food distributors would dump the food.
Soto would also still provide transportation of the produce from her storage at Borderlands to host sites.
A few years after Soto partnered with the 3000 Club, concerns arose over the integrity of some of the food distributors, Soto said.
She didn’t want these concerns to cause Arizona families to not receive fresh produce again.
To achieve this, she decided to rebrand the program.
Taking the Program to a New Level
In August 2014, Soto called the existing host sites in the MOM program with an offer to join her rebranded program named by her family and friends: Produce on Wheels – With Out Waste (P.O.W.W.O.W).
P.O.W.W.O.W would be a food distribution service that would disperse fresh produce to communities through any organization or “partner agencies,” including various schools, nonprofits, churches, and more.
These groups could receive donated food weekly for a low per pound price.
Supporters and volunteers of the new P.O.W.W.O.W. program made a Facebook page in September 2014 to help families and other supporters learn about the program.
Soto hired Paul Kwan, program director in Phoenix, and Esther Hazey, the program specialist in Tucson, to help support the program in the surrounding areas by coordinating food deliveries with host sites in their areas and notifying supporters about upcoming food offerings.
Volunteers also spread the news through word of mouth, letting families know that they would still be able to provide produce to families that need access to large amounts of vegetables at low prices.
Individuals or families would receive food by signing up or registering as a “supporter,” and would be require to donate $10 to shop for up to 60 pounds of rescued produce. The contribution would fund the program’s operations.
Supporters would receive an ID card and the P.O.W.W.O.W program would notify them of upcoming dates of distribution of products through an emailed newsletter.
With so much food for such a low price, families would be able to share their friends and families.
“Food banks are great, but many times food banks aren’t able to feed people nutritiously,” Soto said. “So, we encourage people to share their produce with friends and neighbors.”
Of the MOM host sites that Soto approached to join, 99% in Southern Arizona and nearly half of those in Phoenix decided to participate in P.O.W.W.O.W.
In November 2014, P.O.W.W.O.W officially started offering and distributing rescued food to families.
P.O.W.W.O.W visited 40 sites in 2014.
Delivering Tons of Food!
P.O.W.W.O.W now delivers over 10 million pounds of perishable produce to churches, communities and schools for only two cents a pound.
They also visit and distribute produce to over 64 different sites, throughout Southern Arizona, Tucson and Phoenix, once a month, usually visiting 11 to 12 sites per weekend. The program now has two warehouses with about 13,000 square feet each to hold the rescued produce.
Soto explained that 60 pounds of food is delivered to over 46 recipients a month, along with newsletters and email notifications to help them know when and where the food will be available.
Soto plans for the future in advance by calling suppliers and supporters ahead of time and giving out newsletters months in advance and placing newsletters on their websites.
The Facebook site and the Borderlands website also provide a P.O.W.W.O.W recipe of the week, which shows recipients ways to incorporate vegetables into dishes like spaghetti, butternut squash bake, eggplant parmesan, vegetable sandwiches and more.
Soto explained that Borderlands Food Bank also does direct client services, where local people who register and receive an ID card can get 100 to 500 pounds of produce for only $3. Soto explained that the reason there is so much produced offered is because it is lesser quality produce, which needs to be consumed quickly, as they don’t have a way to preserve the produce or transport the produce.
“We have over 5,000 registered households in Santa Cruz County, they don’t come every day, but they come when they are able,” Soto said.
On Borderlands website, the organization reported transporting 39 million pounds of food over more than 218,000 miles for families in need of food. Eighteen other states receive food from Borderlands through hunger relief organizations.
The organization serves other locations as well through the region, not just in Tucson and Phoenix, but also Flagstaff (18.4% Latino), Wilcox, Benson, Casa Grande (39% Latino) and San Luis (98.7% Latino).
“Fresh produce is very expensive, and so the families that come to us are usually the families who cannot afford the vegetables,” Soto explained in a radio interview. “The good about receiving it from us is that it’s a win-win situation for grocery stores. The people who can’t afford it are developing a taste for it, and eventually those children, who develop the taste, will grow up and hopefully can afford it, will continue to eat it.”
Soto plans to expand the program to get more cooled warehouse space to store more food.
“There’s a lot more produce to rescue,” Soto said. “We just don’t have the space availability to accept all the produce that is offered to us, and of course, because it’s perishable, it perishes faster and faster.”
“So much can be salvaged, and there is so much need.”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.