CREAM OF THE CROP — Volunteer gleaners with Farm to Pantry harvest produce from farms where food would otherwise be wasted. The produce is then donated to local food banks and those in need. The nonprofit plans on expanding their reach in order to glean more produce and distribute to more organizations.

Healdsburg-based nonprofit Farm to Pantry announced April 14, that hunger relief advocate and restaurateur Duskie Estes will take the reins as the organization’s new executive director.

Diving head first into the role, Estes plans to expand the nonprofit’s reach and role in gathering produce from local farms in order to meet the rising demands of Sonoma County food banks and pantries during the coronavirus pandemic.

“They say the (unemployment) claims are at 16,238 (as of April 14) and the week before the shelter in place it was at 293 claims. So clearly we have a food insecurity issue that is exploding,” Estes said. “I was just on this call with about 20 organizations that work in the food insecurity world and everybody has increased demands.”

For those not familiar with the nonprofit, Farm to Pantry is a gleaning organization where groups of volunteers visit farms to help harvest produce that would otherwise be wasted. The food is then donated to local food pantries and community groups such as Alliance Medical Center, Corazón Healdsburg and Reach for Home.

“It is a gleaning organization, which means that it is a group that goes to a farm and harvests food that otherwise would be wasted. Either the farm is lacking staff because of (the) shut down, or the shift in our distribution model has made it that they cannot find a home for it because the normal people that they sell to are not buying,” Estes explained. “Obviously there is a huge disruption in our food distribution systems right now.”

Shaking the snow globe

According to a Farm to Pantry press release, under normal conditions about 40% of food is wasted in the U.S., and Estes said she thinks the pandemic has exacerbated the food waste concern.

“I can tell you that I have been on different webinars all day with different food distribution groups and yes,” she said when asked if the virus was increasing the amount of food wasted. “All the farms that used to work with all of these local restaurants now need to find new ways to get their food off their land. Everybody is trying to redirect to retail, but a number of people, in terms of packaging, weren’t set up for that. It is hard to twist on a dime.”

She described the situation as a sort of snow globe effect with everything being turned upside down.

“If you picture one of those snow globes, when you shake them, everything falls in different areas and basically the entire food system is like that. Whoever were your buyers, however you packaged it and however you harvested it has been completely turned upside down,” she said.

So in response to the increased demand at food banks and the severe wrinkle in food distribution, Farm to Pantry is working to ramp up their ability to help during this difficult time.

While they typically glean in Healdsburg, Estes says they want to expand.

“We are going to the farms in Healdsburg and expanding to the rest of Sonoma County as of this week,” she said. “We currently glean three days a week, we are seeking to take that to four and possibly five days a week.”

They’ve also started working to provide fresh produce and food to Sonoma Family Meals and Catholic Charities in addition to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and Corazon.

“Basically we’re taking on more farms, more volunteers and getting more distribution sites to more folks in need,” Estes said.

However, due to social distancing guidelines, the amount of volunteers that can work together in the same location has been changed.

“We used to go with teams anywhere from eight to 12 and now our teams are more like five to seven, but it depends on the property. If we go in someone’s backyard and if they just have one enormous citrus tree, really only two people can glean at that one house,” she said.

While the gleaning volunteers have to keep the six foot social distancing parameters in mind, Estes said working outside makes the process a bit easier. For instance, it’s much safer than working in a confined kitchen space.

Volunteers are also wearing masks and gloves and everything from the buckets to the bags and the pickers are being sanitized.

Returning to her roots

Prior to returning to nonprofit work, Estes has made a name for herself in the restaurant industry.

Her restaurant ZAZU and her Black Pig Meat Company were recognized with top accolades such as “Top Best New Restaurant,” and “San Francisco’s Top 50 Restaurants.” She also co-authored a James Beard Award book and was featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

However, for Estes, coming back to the nonprofit world is a natural transition since she started her career in that sector.

She ran the food program at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco for a year and worked for Share Our Strength in Washington D.C. and in Washington State. Share Our Strength is a hunger prevention and relief organization that does direct services, fundraising and grants for nonprofits that work on food insecurity.

“I worked for them for three years and developed a direct service program that they have called ‘Cooking Matters’, which was chefs teaching a six week cooking class to about 15 folks on how to cook nutritious food on a food stamp budget,” she said. She also ran their “Taste of the Nation” fundraising events.

Last year she even did a 300-mile bike ride for “No Kid Hungry,” an event where over 200 chefs ride 300 miles together to raise $2 million for funding school breakfast and summer meal programs.

“I’ve always been very much involved in these issues … So for me this is coming back to where I started,” she said.

In the same Farm to Pantry press release, Farm to Pantry founder and board member, Melita Love, said of Estes, "Duskie's energy and devotion to providing nutrient-rich foods to those in need is inspiring.”

Supporting Farm to Pantry’s work

Estes pointed out that it is a challenging time for nonprofits since many of the events that bring in fundraising dollars are not happening.

“It is a challenging time and we are taking a risk to add on more without necessarily having the funding yet,” Estes said. “We are just going for it because the need is now and that is exactly what we did with the fires, we immediately jumped in, in feeding first responders and we weren’t sure if the bottom was going to fall out, but amazing donors came in. We are increasing our efforts and we do need support.”

She said just $25 gets enough vegetables for 105 people. However, any donation of any amount is appreciated.

“No amount is too small,” she said.

To learn more about Farm to Pantry or to make a donation, visit:

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