Katie Pearmine on Produce Capture at Oregon Food Bank

Katie Pearmine on Produce Capture at Oregon Food Bank
Katie Pearmine is the Strategic Sourcing Manager for Oregon Food Bank (OFB). OFB is part of a statewide network of 21 regional food banks and 970 partner agencies that distributes food to individuals and families struggling to make ends meet in Oregon and Clark County, Washington. Previously, Katie worked for Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Katie has worked in agriculture since childhood, having grown up on a fourth generation vegetable, cherry and seed farm. An interest in the ecology of food systems has motivated Katie throughout her career.

“I am fascinated by food systems. No other job will teach you more about the complexity of our food systems than as a food sourcing manager for a food bank,” says Katie.

We posed questions to Katie to find out where in the journey of capturing more produce Oregon Food Bank is today and what she believes are the next steps to sourcing more fresh fruits and vegetables to help feed our hungry neighbors.

What is different about the work you and the team are doing today to capture more fruits and vegetables than you did when you started at Oregon Food Bank?

Katie: When I started at OFB in 2014, I was handed a strategic plan that included a produce initiative to grow our produce donations from 10 to 15 million pounds over a five year period. At the start of the process we created a list and looked at each fruit or vegetable through the lens of sourcing first, answering the questions: Where are our local growers? What is our relationship with them? Do they have the scale to supply our needs at the costs we could afford? That process took some time, but was well worth the investment.

Another early step was to understand and appreciate that much of what we were trying to do was underway or being initiated at other food banks in our network. For us, joining the Produce Capture Institute was a great catalyst for sharing our experiences and learning what other network members were doing along the same lines.

Additionally in the last six months we have started a new regional collaboration with our neighboring food banks in Idaho and Washington. These relationships are a great learning and teaching opportunity as we work to increase our produce pounds sourced and distributed.

What does successful produce capture look like at Oregon Food Bank?

Katie: We approach our growers, packers, and distributors with the idea that we want to form a business partnership. We need to demonstrate to them that we can be consistent in our ability to work with them, and that as a food bank and as a network we have the capacity to handle their donation. We plan with them on our needs for the upcoming season, and they know that when they have a load of produce that can’t go to the commercial market, we are their first call and we’ll be there to work with them.

It’s that consistency that will help us build new produce distribution programs. I want to be able to tell our field services team that the variety and quantity of produce will be consistent throughout the year, so they, in turn, can plan with our partner agencies new programs (e.g. “Pop-up” farmers markets, health care system distributions) and grow existing programs like mobile pantries.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are the building blocks of good health. As food banks we have a responsibility to innovate to find new methods of sourcing and distributing produce to make sure our clients have consistent access to the variety needed to support health and wellness. When I think of working with the team here, with other members of the Produce Capture Institute, with my colleagues in Washington and Idaho, these are the outcomes I am striving for.

What advice do you have for other food banks seeking to further their produce program?

Understand the demand. Work with your agency partners to understand their produce need. Challenge them if their needs won’t close the meal gap in the area they serve.

Build your sourcing relationships step by step. Get to know the growers and distributors. Understand their business, and then work within it.

Be bold, innovate, and try new things. Once you do, share your learnings. It amazes me how much innovation is going on out there, once we hear about it.