There’s an estimated six billion pounds of wasted fresh vegetables each summer in the United States, yet a growing number of people in need of healthy food.
Even in affluent Montgomery County, the number of underfed and in-need people has increased. Manna Food Center, the Gaithersburg-based food bank (and a BethesdaNow.com advertiser) reported a 45 percent increase in clients during the height of the Great Recession.
That’s where Cheryl Kollin, the Bethesda resident who last year started the Farm to Freezer pilot program, hopes her concept can make a difference.
On Saturday, Farm to Freezer volunteers purchased squash, eggplant, green peppers, zucchini and other vegetables from a farmer at a Silver Spring farmers market, then partially cooked the produce for freeze storage at Manna.
The idea is to fill in the large gap between excess, wasted produce and the underfed of Montgomery County who desperately need nutritious food options.
Kollin worked for environmental nonprofits most of her career before getting an MBA in sustainable agriculture and food systems a few years ago.
She wanted to branch out. She started a consulting business called Full Plate Ventures that helped nonprofits market, research and create business plans, but couldn’t find an existing program that dealt with food sustainability in the way she was hoping.
At a Bethesda Green event, she was chatting with Bethesda Cares Executive Director Sue Kirk when she came up with the idea of the Farm to Freezer concept.
Kirk, whose organization provides food, clothing and counseling services for homeless people in Bethesda, told Kollin she was getting plenty of donated produce, but that much of it went bad before her clients could use it.
“She said, ‘I’ve got this problem. I’ve got too much beautiful donated produce and it goes bad before I can use it all,’” Kollin said. “I just said, ‘Let’s freeze it.’”
Kollin created a group of volunteers through Manna, local religious institutions and Bethesda nonprofits to pick up excess produce at local farm markets, bring it to a community kitchen and prepare it for freezing and distribution to Bethesda Care clients during the winter.
In February, Kollin’s program won a national contest, which allowed her to speak at a conference on sustainable food programming.
This year, Kollin hopes to make Farm to Freezer self-sustaining by introducing a line of tomato sauce and ratatouille to local, independent grocery stores.
“I’ve worked for nonprofits most of my career, so I think I’m just oriented that way,” Kollin said.
Her mom was a dietician who did catering.
“She was also a Jewish mother, so you couldn’t get away from food in our family,” Kollin said. “Her advice to me was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go into food,’ so of course, here I am.”
Farm to Freezer, of course, is different than running a catering business.
Kollin, her kitchen manager Cathryn Gunnerson and husband Bill Franz are in the community kitchen at Woodside United Methodist Church in Silver Spring each Saturday, Sunday and Monday, preparing the food with a group of rotating volunteers.
On Saturday, nine volunteers helped dice squash, roast peppers and blanch produce so it could be frozen and sent to Manna. The idea is that Manna’s clients will be able to thaw the material in the winter and throw it on to a soup or stew or dish as a side item.
Manna clients typically must rely on non-local frozen food or non-perishable packaged goods that are less healthy.
Nothing in the kitchen goes to waste. The ends of the vegetables are composted, something most farmers at farm markets don’t do.
“It’s a way to take something from nothing. There are lots of winners and I don’t see any loser in it,” Franz said. “It seems to resonate with people so that volunteers are willing to put in four or five hours.”
Volunteer Olivia McKnight heard about the program on WTOP and said she immediately emailed Kollin. McKnight said she was looking for unique opportunities to fulfill volunteer requirements at her sorority.
“It’s a lot more movement than just kind of sitting at a desk and handing out slips of paper, so I thought this would be a lot more interesting,” “It’s different. I’ve never heard of anything like it. I don’t cook, so my mom thought it’d be a good idea too.”
The program offers Student Service Learning hours to MCPS students. Students 16 and older can participate on their own. Students age 13-15 must have an adult with them.
For more information on Farm to Freezer and a volunteer calendar, visit the program’s website.