ARTHUR, Ill. – The goal was 1,000 pounds of produce; instead, the first year of Extension’s Partners in Produce project tipped the scales at more than 25,000 pounds. With the enthusiastic support of the growers and buyers at the Arthur Produce Auction, University of Illinois Extension has provided more than 116,000 pounds of fresh produce to central Illinois food pantries in three years.
In early 2019, MaryBeth Massey, Illinois Extension program coordinator for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, wanted to address food insecurity in her community. She was familiar with the Arthur Produce Auction and curious if a partnership, now called Partners in Produce, could start between Extension and the auction to provide excess produce to families in need. The auction is operated by the local Amish community and managed by Sheldon Raber.
“We started on June 7, 2019, with 55 pounds of asparagus and 25 pounds of rhubarb,” Massey said. “Our first goal was 1,000 pounds of produce. We ended up with more than 25,000 that first year. We kept showing up each week, and growers and buyers started giving us more produce.”
After a successful inaugural partnership, COVID-19 had the potential to derail all the previous year’s progress. Massey and Susan Stollard, community worker with Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed, continued in 2020 with the support of the auction, growers, and others, resulting in 27,300 pounds of produce donated to the area pantries and food distribution sites.
“The Amish Produce Auction and community have been very supportive of our work,” Massey said.
A benefit auction was held in late 2019 with plans to purchase boxes of produce at the auction in 2020 for a discounted price using the funds raised. As COVID-19 hit, pantries were overwhelmed with new families.
“We used those funds to purchase produce, and as we would start to run low on funds, more donations would appear to cover the cost of produce,” Massey said. “Most of these donations have been anonymous.”
In 2020 and 2021, funds from the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) and the Lumpkin Family Foundation allowed the Partners in Produce program to extend its reach even further.
A $30,000 seed grant from IIN connected Illinois Extension and Eastern Illinois University’s nutrition and dietetics programs to increase the volume of donations, expand project reach and establish a sustainable distribution process. Three graduate EIU dietetics students, Abby Mann, Colleen Leehy, and Samantha Metternich, attended each auction this past summer to help load produce, deliver to pantries and track the donations.
The Lumpkin Family Foundation provided more than $15,000, which was used to purchase multiple refrigeration units for area pantries. Refrigeration units are key to keep the produce fresh for a longer period so it can be used by families before spoiling.
Due to this continued support and momentum, year three resulted in the highest numbers yet, with 64,212 pounds donated to local food pantries and other sites, including community meal locations, Little Free Food Pantries in Douglas County, and mobile markets. Forty-one locations now receive produce, and deliveries reach families in Douglas, Moultrie, Coles, Cumberland, Edgar, Macon and Champaign counties. Other businesses, such as Regenerative Life Farms and Countryside Greenhouse, have donated additional items, including eggs, produce, and tomato and pepper plants directly for Extension to distribute.
“Working in this area really touches your soul,” Stollard said. “I would see families week after week, and they would tell me, ‘That’s the best tomato I’ve had in years. I can’t afford to buy them from the market and the ones at the store don’t taste as good.’”
The future for the Partners in Produce Program is positive. Partners in Produce will receive an additional $30,000 from the Lumpkin Family Foundation next year to support its work during the 2022 season.
“Every year, it just keeps getting better,” Massey said.
For more information about the Partners in Produce program or to learn how you can contribute, visit the website.