One potato, two potato, three potato, more!

A bagging machine from Cargill is enabling food bank Second Harvest Heartland to rescue surplus produce for hungry families.

By Carl Peterson February 20, 2015

Imagine this scenario: You own a warehouse where volunteers pack donated food for hungry families. A farmer calls you and says he has a massive surplus of potatoes you can claim, which will otherwise be lost.

Repacking the potatoes by hand, your volunteers can get through about 75 pounds of food per hour per person. But this means tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds of nutritious food that could feed local families will not be rescued.

This was the dilemma facing Bob Branham, director of the Produce Capture Institute at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank serving 59 counties across Minnesota and western Wisconsin. But thanks in part to a donation from Cargill, Second Harvest Heartland was able to acquire an automated bagging machine that is helping get produce out the door at a much higher rate.

“There is so much produce available to us. This machinery is enabling us to automate the process and get more out there to our clients faster, amplifying the impact our volunteers have on the community,” Bob said.

The new setup allows Second Harvest Heartland to quickly sort and package potatoes that arrive in bulk. Today, seven volunteers staffing the machinery can pack 12 bags per minute; each bag contains 10 pounds of potatoes. That’s a rate of more than 1,000 pounds per hour per volunteer, much higher than the 75-pound rate of manual bagging. Bob hopes to get the efficiency up to 15 bags per minute, which would boost output even more.

Machines to the rescue

Food loss is a major issue around the world. By some estimates, upwards of one-third of food produced globally goes unconsumed, often because it goes bad on its way to market or is thrown away by consumers after they’ve bought it.

In some cases, farmers grow more than the commercial system can handle. This surplus is turned into animal feed, composted, or in the worst-case scenario, sent to a landfill. In Minnesota alone, it is estimated that more than 350 million pounds of fruits and vegetables goes either unharvested or unsold every year.

Growers in northern Minnesota and North Dakota have indicated they could send as much as 100,000 pounds of excess potatoes, onions and other produce to Second Harvest Heartland each week for 11 months out of the year. According to the food bank, every 1.2 pounds of food translates to a meal for someone in need.

“Nobody wants this food to be left out in the fields when it could be feeding people,” Bob said.

Even if the new potato bagger at Second Harvest Heartland’s Golden Valley, Minnesota, location is only rescuing a small percentage of this surplus, Bob hopes it will serve as a model that can be recreated across the Feeding America network of more than 200 food banks around the U.S., of which Second Harvest Heartland is a member. Right now, it’s unusual for a food bank to use this kind of equipment, but the potential is huge.

“Whether it’s a bagger or any other kind of repacking process, it would be great to replicate this at other food banks around the country. It could be cauliflower, apples or other items. We just happen to be in a region that has a lot of potatoes,” he explained.

With the new bagging machinery on line, Second Harvest Heartland has a goal of adding an additional 2.5 million pounds of fresh produce to the emergency food system in the next year. Cargill’s support is helping the Produce Capture Institute discover new ways to rescue surplus produce and move it safely and efficiently to Second Harvest Heartland’s clients.

“An initiative like this is a perfect example of working with really strong partners like Cargill, in combination with our network, to provide more food to our communities,” said Mary Sutherland, director of communications and media relations at Second Harvest Heartland.

As part of the Feeding America network food banks, Second Harvest Heartland has an ongoing partnership with Cargill, which has donated $6 million to Feeding America over three years. Feeding America food banks provide food to one in seven Americans.