Nita Gilson started small, with a few friends, to address an issue she saw in her community: the need to collect produce that would otherwise go to waste and get it to people in need. They called it CropSwap and started in 2010 by visiting backyards in North County to gather excess fruits and vegetables and drop them off at a local food bank.
Today, that small project has grown into the nonprofit ProduceGood that she and two friends — Jerilyn White and Alexandra White — founded together. The organization operates as a food recovery program, addressing hunger by taking excess produce from orchards, farms and farmers’ markets, and distributing that food to agencies they’ve partnered with, through the Charitable Fresh Produce Provision Network they created.
Gilson, 59, is a former graphic designer who now serves as the organization’s executive director of programs and outreach. Gilson — who lives in Encinitas and has two adult daughters — took some time to talk about the work being done at ProduceGood and her passion for reducing waste and helping feed those who need access to healthy food.
Q: Why was this work, with ProduceGood, something that you wanted to do?
A: This work is my second chapter. I was a graphic designer for 20 years, a completely different skill set. The reason I became engaged in idea of upcycling was that I saw an issue in my community that nobody was addressing, so I began to tackle it in my own small way, very grassroots, with a few friends and neighbors, beginning in 2010. I called it CropSwap, and it remains our flagship gleaning program today. We started by gleaning backyards in North County and taking our filled boxes to the local food bank. Soon, I partnered with Feeding San Diego to be able to accommodate the large orchards in this area, and we were able to expand our capacity exponentially. As an example of our growth, we gleaned 6,000 pounds of citrus in 2014 and 96,000 pounds of citrus this year alone. Our lifetime total of produce recovered is 334,000 pounds, helping us reach our goal of providing 1 million servings of nutritious fruits and vegetables to the food insecure of San Diego. This means that we have diverted 167 tons of perfectly edible food from entering the landfill.
Q: What compelled you to do something with this excess food?
A: When I discovered that 40 percent of all food being wasted, both locally and nationally, was coupled with the fact that one in six San Diegans is food insecure — meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from — it seemed like the solution was a no-brainer. Here, in bountiful San Diego, we literally had the answer to hunger in our own backyards.
Q: Why aren’t the farmers able to sell the extra food, rather than disposing of it?
A: Our surplus produce comes from over 118 growers, both private residential orchard owners and commercial farmers. In the case of residential growers, they typically don’t try and sell their excess, and if they do, they quickly discover the cost of harvesting and transporting the crop far exceeds any profit they would make. In the case of farmers, it also usually is cheaper to plow under or dispose of their excess, rather than to incur the costs associated with harvesting and transporting and trying to sell B-surplus, which also may not meet the commercial standards (think “ugly fruit”).
Q: Walk us through how your program works. If people are hungry and want access to this produce, what do they do?
A: We work with 20 agencies in our Charitable Fresh Produce Provision Network (CFPPN), who receive our gleaned produce. We do not store any of the fruits and vegetables that we harvest; we transport the bounty within hours from orchards, farms, farmers’ markets to recipients in one of our two vans, called the Fruit Loopers. We do not distribute directly to the public. If a person is food insecure, they can access local pantries, which may very well have some of our produce available.
Q: Where did your passion for helping feed those who are food insecure come from?
A: When we first started our Market Share program in March 2017 — our farmers’ market food recovery program, collecting surplus produce that the farmers cannot sell — we began directly distributing the gorgeous weekly harvests from the farmers’ markets directly to agencies and those they served. We were overwhelmed by the gratitude from these clients, many of whom never got fresh fruits and vegetables. We received letters thanking us for changing their lives, saying they felt better, were able to take medication more easily, they lost weight. Some, who had communal kitchens, started cooking together as therapy, and even have put together a cookbook with recipes made using our produce. We were deeply touched and re-inspired to fulfill our mission.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work?
A: The greatest challenge in this work is to not feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem of both hunger and waste. The truth is, we do not have a hunger problem in the United States, we have a transportation, accessibility and logistics problem. We have way too much food, people who need food are not getting it, and the food that is not consumed is heating up the planet via methane gas emissions from landfills. We see transportation is our largest issue — we are the connectors between the excess and the need, but we only have a tiny staff, two vans and a very large county. We need help. We are looking at many solutions, but the hunger problem cannot be solved until the accessibility problem is solved. Period.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: This fall, we provided blank “thank you” cards to all feeding agencies we serve and their clients, to express gratitude to the farmers who donated their surplus produce to them this year. We got over 65 responses, and I was able to distribute these notes to each individual farmer at all of our markets. Many were moved to tears. These were letters from real individuals who had eaten and benefited from their delicious generosity. No one had ever thanked them in this way before! The greatest reward of our work so far was when I realized that we had closed the loop between the source and the need, and were building a community, one where all were helping each other. This experience underscored the importance of our work and our vital part in a healthy food system.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: The greatest piece of advice I ever received was get my ego out of the way, and to not take things personally.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: Because I was born here to Latvian parents who were refugees in World War II, I did not speak English when I entered kindergarten.
What I love about Encinitas...
I live in Leucadia, near the beach and many restaurants. I love the quirky character that Leucadia maintains and that I can walk almost everywhere I need to go..
— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune