Cultivate Scaling Up – Farmers Exchange

This article was originally published on the Farmers Exchange. It has been modified to fit this format.

With an eye toward expansion, Cultivate Food Rescue is constructing a 22,000-square-foot cold storage building next to its headquarters at 1403 Prairie Ave. in South Bend. The new facility, scheduled to open May 1, will increase Cultivate’s cold-storage capacity by tenfold.

“They measure it in pallet positions, so we have about 200 pallets of food we can store now,” said Jim Conklin, executive director. “With that new facility, it’s going to be about 2,200.”

In the food distribution business, cold storage is everything. Conklin said the new building, with massive freezers and refrigerators, will provide plenty of space to receive truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and milk. The new Cultivate building will essentially serve as a central warehouse for 140 food pantries in a three-county area.

Conklin said this new facility will be a game-changer, as it will allow Cultivate to receive and store bulk quantities of foods that are most needed by local pantries.

He added that roughly 60% of the food flowing through community pantries is non-perishable, like canned items. That percentage is even higher at the smallest pantries, which serve some of the most vulnerable populations in terms of food insecurity.

“In order to get healthy foods—fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein—you have to have cold storage,” Conklin said. “Healthy food is better for you, more valuable and missing from our community pantries.”

With the new cold storage building, Cultivate will have more space for production and offices inside the existing facility. They currently have one meal-packing line and will add a second when the new building is opened. Once the meals are packed, they will be transported to the new facility for cold storage.

From its humble beginning in 2017 to now, Cultivate has experienced a 225% growth in terms of total donations and annual revenue, reaching $10.7 million at the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.

“That’s really hard to do for a for-profit company. It’s extremely difficult for a not-for-profit,” Conklin said. “We have to be the fastest growing organization in our area. But the impact is substantial. That is what’s important.”

According to Conklin, Cultivate fills an important niche in the community. It rescues food that would be wasted under normal circumstances and repurposes it for needy children and food pantries.

“We’re just introducing food that was always in our community but wasn’t being rescued and being provided to our neighbors,” he said. “So, it’s a new supply that is very noticeable.”

He added that Cultivate’s steep growth parallels the rise in demand at local food pantries. Since the end of the pandemic, inflation has reduced consumers’ buying power, resulting in more people turning to local food pantries for help. Over the past year, those pantries have seen a 40% increase in demand, Conklin said, with much of that growth coming from families who visited a pantry for the very first time.

“While the rest of the world talks about a great economy and how the economy is holding up given all the inflation, that doesn’t really apply to the bottom half of the income earners in our country,” he said. “It’s extremely more difficult than it was a year ago and (more difficult) than it ever was during COVID.”

During COVID, the food insecure population benefited from many free resources, such as the Farmers to Families Program, expanded food stamp eligibility and Medicaid insurance, rental assistance, monthly tax credits, and so on.

“Every time one of those things has been removed, we’ve seen pantry traffic pick up,” Conklin said.

The nonprofit CEO said we need the same sense of urgency and cooperation that existed during the pandemic to guide food assistance efforts going forward.

“We’re actually worse off now with childhood food insecurity than we were prior to COVID,” Conklin said.

Weekends are a big problem for needy children. They can get free or reduced lunches during the school day, courtesy of the U.S Department of Agriculture,but the 68-hour-gap from Friday lunch to Monday morning breakfast puts these children at a disadvantage.

As Conklin said, “If they don’t eat well over the weekend, they don’t come to school ready to learn.”

With an eye on that problem, Cultivate provides a weekend backpack program for 55 elementary schools and 1,350 children in St. Joseph (Ind.), Elkhart and Marshall counties. Conklin said 60% of the children receiving backpacks are from homes with a single mother who has a full-time job. He added that most families can’t get by on a single income these days.

With the backpack program, packaged meals are stuffed into backpacks and distributed to children at their respective schools on Fridays. The children return the backpacks on Mondays.

“We have families who are in their second and third generations of poverty, and we have to try to see the world from their point of view, not from ours,” Conklin said.

In Marshall County, 40% of the population lives paycheck-to-paycheck. He said those people are just one accident, one illness or one unexpected bill away from losing their apartment.

Conklin added that poverty limits options for people. It also limits hope.

“That’s why the resources are needed,” he said. “It all starts with education. We believe that’s the way out of poverty.”

Conklin notes some irony in our modern food system. Food waste is at an all-time high, even while many people are struggling to get enough to eat.

“We (in the U.S.) throw out enough food to feed 100 million people,” he said, “and there is about 30-35 million people in this country who are food insecure. So, hunger is not a food supply issue. It’s a waste problem. It’s a logistics challenge.”

Operating on the back end of the food system, Cultivate seeks to capture the abundance from farms, grocery stores, major food manufacturers and processors before it is wasted, and deliver it to pantries that serve the most vulnerable populations.

Conklin said this will also help reduce the strain on farmers and farmland if more of the food produced was used instead of wasted.

“Using a resource that’s already there is way more efficient than growing more, especially from a cost and an environmental point of view,” he said.

Conklin and Todd Zeltwanger, Cultivate’s director of fund development, work with the St. Joseph County 4-H program to accept protein donations from 4-H’ers at the county fair. That meat is distributed to local food pantries that serve needy families.

2024 holds lots of promise for Cultivate. The company is adding new farms to its list of suppliers, the latest of which is a watermelon farm from southwestern Michigan. Cultivate receives the small or very large, imperfect melons, but Conklin said the nutritional value is the same.

All the fresh produce received from farms and other sources is brought to Cultivate’s industrious kitchen, where chef April Howell, who joined Cultivate last June, and her assistants incorporate the various fruits and vegetables into delicious recipes for frozen meals.

With its new cold storage facility, Cultivate is scaling up so it can capture more food and help more people. When it’s up and running in May, the facility will reduce Cultivate’s cost to capture, repurpose and distribute 1 pound of food from a little over $1 to 50 cents.

Another important goal is to open a second volunteer location in Elkhart this fall. That still-to-be-determined facility, once in operation, will double Cultivate’s production of meals and backpacks.

Cultivate, with 14 full-time employees and six part-time workers, will continue to operate the kitchen and expanded meal-packing lines. The volunteers are key to the success of Cultivate’s production. Conklin said the volunteers who roll up their sleeves and work every day equal about 14 full-time workers.

The nonprofit’s capital campaign has raised $8.7 million to date, thanks to monetary donations from individuals, businesses and charitable groups. The fundraising effort will continue into 2024, with the goal of reaching $10.5 million before the new facility opens in May.