Thanksgiving is this week. Around the country, steaming hot dishes fight for room on the table, the foodscape differing from house to house — some families will put out white rice and gravy, others swear by candied yams, still others must have prime rib. Some eat at noon, while other, more patient groups, wait until the sun sets. Almost 400 years old, Thanksgiving is more than a tradition, a coming together. It’s an expectation — not only will there be food on the table, there will be too much to eat in one sitting. There will be glorious excess, and leftovers for days.
But some tables will not be packed with pies and hams Thurs. Nov. 22. According to Feeding America — a national organization that helps feed those in need through a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries — here in the great state of South Carolina, 687,880 people are struggling with hunger. That’s one in seven adults and one in five children. In Charleston County alone, 52,220 people are food insecure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as the “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”
Sasha Coyle, program director at local nonprofit Fields to Families (FTF), is fighting to put food — nutritionally valuable food — on the table of thousands of Lowcountry citizens. Founded in 2006, FTF works with area farmers markets and farms to collect excess or “ugly” produce that would otherwise be tossed. FTF’s main goal is to tranpsort this fresh produce to food banks, soup kitchens, foster homes, and low-income neighborhoods as quickly as possible. But the organization also helps to grow and harvest crops, too.
“It’s beautiful chaos,” laughs Coyle. “There are a lot of moving parts.” Delivering food to more than 30 agencies, Coyle attempts to schedule the farms’ needs with the recipients’ needs. “We’re on a monthly rotation — either board members or volunteers or myself or our program manager will deliver it. It’s concrete … but it’s also very fly by the seat of your pants. A farmer could call this afternoon and say ‘we need a group tomorrow.'”
FTF works with farms all over the tri-county area, though most are located on Johns Island and Wadmalaw, and Coyle also runs the FTF garden, a very mini farm, in Moncks Corner. They’ve made pick-ups as far away as Orangeburg, and even had asparagus delivered across state lines when a farmer in Georgia found out about their mission and realized he could share his extra stalks.
Recently, Coyle started working with Fili-West Farms in Vance, S.C. to collect their extra eggs. “Sometimes it can be 200 dozen. One time I picked up 800 dozen,” says Coyle. And time, especially when it comes to delicate dozens, is very much of the essence. “We have no cooler space. It’s cool outside now, but in the dead of summer, things have to be turned around quickly. We could get beautiful tomatoes that are so ripe the farmer can’t sell them, but they’re still good. They’re still edible, we have to make the turn around really quickly. There’s no storage, no middle step, it’s ‘grab and go.'”
Coyle says ideally, one day, the organization will have a food hub where people could come to them. For now, it’s the hard work of volunteers that keeps FTF going season after season. “Volunteers can be anybody,” says Coyle. “I’ve seen people come out with pack-and-plays, working in the fields with babies strapped to their chests. Age, gender, none of that matters.” In fact, Coyle started out as a volunteer herself. A few years ago, Coyle says her husband signed them up to volunteer at a farm at the FTF booth during the Mt. Pleasant farmers market. A stay-at-home mom with three boys, Coyle figured a Saturday at a farm with the kids would make for a fun outing. “We went back the next weekend,” she says. And then, soon after, the family found a house in Moncks corner, which happened to be right down the street from the FTF garden.
“I couldn’t keep a houseplant alive before this,” says Coyle, who now is a Master Gardener. “I didn’t say ‘I’m going to grow up and be a farmer.’ I just got so interested. I started volunteering, then became a board member, then became program manager, and now I’m program director. That’s all she wrote.”
Around the holidays, Coyle says that many of the agencies they support will hand out packages with meal fixings like a frozen turkey and canned foods. FTF makes sure “a big old bag of greens” is placed alongside these pre-packaged goods.
“Up until the Tuesday before Thanksgiving we’re out in the fields trying to fill those orders,” says Coyle. “It’s usually anything green and leafy, collards, mustard greens, kale, or maybe rutabagas, turnips.” As Coyle has grown along with the organization, she says she’s realized that “some kids have no idea where food comes from, working in the garden, fresh food in general, it’s kind of a lost art.”
How many kids from that one out of five statistic will be served fresh, straight from the ground produce when their food insecurity is finally addressed? How many will know where it comes from? Hopefully, with the help of FTF — who also work to educate locals at farmers markets about how to cook their veggies, lessening the “intimidation” factor — plates will be filled with ripe tomatoes and fresh spinach and cage-free eggs instead of canned green beans and microwave mac and cheese. “Prepackaged and canned is just easier,” acknowledges Coyle. “We just want people to eat fresh produce. We have this opportunity to not let the food go to waste and to get it out there.”
To learn more about Fields to Families’ mission, donate, and find out how to become a volunteer, visit fieldstofamilies.org.