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AmeriCorps volunteer Meredith Prescott throws out bad a bad tomato while picking at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GRAND JUNCTION — On a cloudy, mid-July morning, a small group of volunteers began picking more than a ton of watermelons, 330 pounds of cucumbers and roughly 25 pounds of tomatoes on land that for decades has been used to research crop varieties, increase yields and control pests and diseases.

Not so long ago, some of the fruit grown here at the Western Colorado Research Center on Orchard Mesa would fall to the ground, unharvested and uneaten.

But four years ago, Grand Junction resident Amanda McQuade founded Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief, a Colorado State University program to address local food insecurity. 

The concept was simple: Food shouldn’t go to waste, particularly when so many people are hungry.

Apples, peaches, plums, pears and cherries grown specifically for research, along with vegetables and other fruit planted by Community Alliance, is harvested and given to Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies, which distributes food to low-income seniors and food pantries across 14 western Colorado counties. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruit and vegetables have been donated since 2017.

Several varieties of cherry tomatoes are grown and harvested at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Additionally, Community Alliance delivers produce directly to multiple local agencies such as the Homeward Bound homeless shelter, Grand Valley Catholic Outreach Soup Kitchen, Mesa County Valley School District’s Lunch Lizard program and other organizations.

In addition to the watermelon, tomatoes and cukes in July, Community Alliance has harvested and donated beets, kale and carrots, and planted cantaloupe and honeydew melons, pumpkins, and butternut, acorn and spaghetti squashes. 

Western Colorado Research Center, with agricultural experiment stations in Fruita and on Orchard Mesa in Mesa County and on Rogers Mesa in Delta County, is one of several CSU research centers where university scientists study pruning methods, irrigation techniques and other farming practices. It’s practical, applied research that farmers can then adapt. 

Founded in 1962, the research center would often make the fruit available, informally, to friends and neighbors. However, it’s never been cost-effective to pay research assistants with advanced degrees to collect and distribute the food, which meant some of the crops were left to compost in the field – what McQuade noted as “this missed opportunity to feed people.” 

Selling the fruit to packing sheds was also problematic, because of the nonuniformity of the crops.

McQuade, a mother of three, grew up in New Mexico where she earned a bachelor’s of science degree in microbiology and biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She later earned a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology. 

As Community Alliance program coordinator, she hired two AmeriCorps interns, and enlisted a cadre of volunteers – including 35 regulars, plus a dozen or so who come once or twice during a season – to plant, tend, harvest and help distribute the crops grown for Community Alliance. Volunteers also collect the fruit grown for research purposes.

Before the COVID-19 virus, students of all ages would visit the research center to learn about nutrition, farming, food insecurity and food banks. School children would help harvest cherry tomatoes to bring back to their schools’ cafeteria lunchrooms. Third graders typically come in the spring to plant, and they return in the fall as fourth graders to harvest. 

Students also normally attend cooking classes inside the center’s new teaching kitchen, where children use kid-sized culinary tools to prepare food that they’ve harvested. 

Adults come to the kitchen to learn canning and preserving techniques from Ann Duncan, a master preserver at the Tri River Area Extension in Montrose. 

Program Coordinator for the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief, Amanda McQuade, left, and volunteer Grace Sonderman load crates of tomatoes at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Food grown at the research center is regularly donated to several area non-profits. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Grow Another Row

In 2009, as a stay-at-home mother of a toddler son who loved munching on fresh vegetables from their backyard garden, McQuade began thinking about food insecurity in the community. It bothered her that low-income people often cannot afford the higher-priced, more nutritious foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. 

The family had a prolific plum tree, and McQuade would give her excess plums to a neighbor – who would then donate them to the Salvation Army. At the same time, McQuade learned about Backyard Harvest, an Idaho program where organizers collected local gardeners’ excess produce to deliver to people in need. Those two ideas led McQuade to form Grow Another Row in Grand Junction. 

McQuade loaded empty boxes and her son into her van and began driving around town collecting people’s extra zucchinis, tomatoes, peaches and other produce, which she’d then deliver to the Community Food Bank, the local soup kitchen and the homeless shelter. She solicited volunteers to pick up produce in their neighborhoods to deliver to organizations they supported – with two conditions — the food had to be free and accessible to the general public.

Eventually, to make it easier for community members to donate, McQuade asked CSU Extension in Mesa County if its office could be a produce drop-off site. Then the research center called McQuade, asking if she wanted their tomatoes for Grow Another Row.

“It was a win-win,” McQuade said. 

Greg Litus, the research center’s new manager, had a philanthropic bent and wanted to donate food consistently but didn’t quite know how to make that happen, she said. Attempts at harvesting often got in the way of data collection, she said.

The next year-and-a-half she and Litus hashed out an education program around food that would bring school children and community members out to the research station. They also developed a system for planting, harvesting and delivering crops for the Food Bank of the Rockies and other agencies. The university hired McQuade to coordinate the program. 

In addition to CSU’s tree fruits, Community Alliance planted four acres of  annual crops. 

During its first growing seasons, from 2017-20, Community Alliance has donated 300,000 pounds of produce. 

“That’s the unique thing about it; we’re planting specifically for hunger relief,” Litus said. 

“It’s all due to Amanda; her energy and her vision helped create this. She raised support to help us utilize the land in a way to grow produce for regional food banks. At the research center we have all the equipment, land, irrigation – we’re all set up for this kind of work.”

Last year, the Delta Correctional Center also lent a hand. Supervised inmates helped plant a half-acre of watermelons at the Fruita Research Station and did “all the hard work” like pounding T-posts for tomato trellising, McQuade said. The group was unable to come this year due to COVID-19. 

“They talked about how nice it was to do something meaningful; they liked the fact they were doing something for hunger relief,” McQuade said. “Some were so excited about fresh food.”

She recalled a man in his 50s, who said he’d never tasted a cherry like the one he tried that summer. He’d only had maraschino cherries in syrup, he said. Other inmates mentioned how nice it was to be outside. Some had lots of questions. 

“They were proud of the work they did,” McQuade said.

Volunteer Emilee Powell picks tomatoes at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Farm to food bank

Philanthropy is growing at other CSU research centers throughout Colorado. McQuade is working with staff to help them develop relationships with food banks.

At the CSU agricultural experiment station in Fort Collins, a pilot program is addressing food insecurity among university graduate students. The ARDEC South Food Security Project includes four 280-feet-long rows of planted tomatoes, watermelons, squash and peppers.

Hugo Pantigoso Guevara is a CSU horticulture and landscape architecture graduate student who is working on the project. He said many food-insecure grad students are unaware that area food pantries are available to students.

He expects the site to produce 10,000 pounds of produce that will be made available to students at a distribution station on campus. Hopefully, COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted this fall to allow students who signed up to come help with the harvest, he said.

At the Southwestern Colorado Research Center in Cortez, researchers have begun taking their extra wheat to the West End Economic Development Corp. grain mill in Norwood to be ground into flour, which will then be distributed to the Navajo Nation and to Share House in Cortez for distribution to area food pantries.

“Amanda put the bug in our ear,” said Emily Lockard, a CSU research assistant in Cortez. “She has been an inspiration for all of this.” 

While the SCRC sells wheat and hay to help fund its research, 600 pounds of leftover wheat from a variety trial was not a quantity large enough to sell, Lockard said. 

AmeriCorps volunteer Grace Sonderman picks tomatoes at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We thought, if we have this mill, why not put this effort into it and see what the community response is,” Lockard said. “It’s a wholesome, whole-grain product.” 

In Dove Creek, Dolores County Extension Director Gus Westerman is partnering with Montezuma and Dolores counties, as well as Southwest Colorado Research Center to grow varieties of apples, pears, peaches and plums as part of a high-altitude fruit trees demonstration project.

Funds generated from annual U-pick sales of the fruit go toward sustaining the program. 

“We seldom sell everything from the three acres,” Westerman said. “Anything left over is available for donation. This year we’re making it official by keeping track of the amount of food going to the Food Bank and to two Native American communities – the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute. This year especially, there are a lot of disadvantaged people due to the economic impacts by COVID-19. People need it more than ever.” 

At the Arkansas Valley Research Center in Rocky Ford, vegetable crop specialist Mike Bartolo offers onions to the Care and Share Food Bank in Colorado Springs – which serves 31 southern Colorado counties. 

The San Luis Valley Research Center in Center  grew more than 2 million pounds of potatoes last each. That research station studies potato physiology, pathology, breeding and storage issues. For the past few years they’ve also planted potatoes specifically for food banks. 

In July, San Luis Valley donated more than 300,000 pounds of potatoes to Care and Share in Colorado Springs. 

“It’s good for us,” farm manager Zach Czarnecki said. “They send a big semi-truck over and we can load 15,000 to 20,000 potatoes at a time.” 

McQuade is working with Czarnecki to find a market to sell his potatoes to the hunger relief organization Feeding America. It cost money to grow the crops, she said, and food banks have money to purchase staples.

Volunteer Emilee Powell picks tomatoes at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She’s also consulting with other research stations, as well as farmers, about how to go about selling produce to food banks at a mutually beneficial cost. 

“We worked with Care and Share to purchase crops at a low price,” McQuade said. “It’s just enough to cover expenses, so it’s really minimal.”

For farmers who lost business when the pandemic forced restaurants to close, or, for growers who end up with undersized produce they’re unable to sell to regular markets, selling to food banks can be a good option to recoup costs, McQuade said.

McQuade has talked with university research stations in Wisconsin, Michigan and Washington state about how she created CSU’s farm-to-food bank program.

“Now people know we have this great program – and, by-the-way – there’s research that goes on here,” Litus said. We’re bringing people together, engaging the community. 

“All we had to do was open up some land, provide irrigation, and a facility to support her vegetable production. Amanda has created an amazing model for people to follow.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @sharon_sullivan