Outside the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Fresno, volunteers unload boxes of ribbed sinqua from a farmer’s pickup truck.
“All right they’re all good to go,” a young man says. “All of it?” another volunteer asks as he and others line up to carry the boxes of vegetables inside.
About 35 small farmers signed up for the buyback put on by the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center in Fresno. It’s called a buyback because the institute purchases some of the fruits and vegetables growers aren’t able to sell due to the pandemic and then gives the produce back to communities facing food insecurity.
Farmer Varinder Bedi brought in 15 boxes of crops he can’t sell otherwise. “Today I bring some chili arbol, some dried chilies, and some mustard and some eggplants,” he says.
Bedi used to be a truck driver but he says there were too many rules and regulations. So a couple of years ago, he went back to a skill he learned in India: farming. It was a good change, he says, but he never expected a pandemic.
“It’s really hard these days. Before we used to sell vegetables in the market, the stores and in the temples,” he says.
Temples and some farm markets are closed, he says, and even grocery stores are buying less. Farmer Antonio Olmos says he’s also finding fewer places to sell his crops.
“The buyers are not buying, the grocery stores, the restaurants are not buying as much, so a lot of it is sitting in the packing sheds and it’s going bad in the sheds,” he says. “We, at the end of the day, we end up losing.”
Losing because packing houses are backed up and aren't buying as much of his produce. So Olmos hauled 76 boxes of butternut squash here.
“That’s probably two percent of what I have out there,” he says. “I got nowhere to take it.”
He says it’s not even worth it to pick some of his crops, and that means some are left to rot. But today was a win. He was paid about $1200 for his squash.
“This is a big help, especially when there’s products that are perfectly good, they’re tasteful, but stuff like that we have to throw away,” he says.
Carmen Mendoza is the deputy director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center and she’s running the buyback.
“The need is huge,” she says, “especially because they’re not receiving funds from anyplace else, and some of the other funding that’s been released still targets industrial sized farming.”
Funding for this event comes from the CARES act through the city of Fresno, she says. And help has materialized in other ways too.
“Today, we are super blessed,” Mendoza says. “Normally we have about 40 to 60 volunteers for the entire day. I think we’re topping at about 90 today.
Ninety volunteers to unload those boxes farmers bring in but also to pack about 2000 grocery bags of produce to help feed the community. Churches, food pantries, and other groups like Lao Veterans and the Fresno American Indian Health Project will pick up the bags later in the day and distribute them.
Santiago Rodriguez is Mendoza’s son. He studies computer science at Harvey Mudd College. But today his volunteer role is efficiency manager. As he walks into a large room with open doors, he yells out to a group of volunteers organizing produce. “All right guys make sure to keep up your social distancing,” he says.
Boxes of vegetables are piled high on the floor in two rows. “Right now we have two lines, one is mainstream crops, one is Southeast Asian crops,” he says.
Volunteer Autumn Chang, 15, says she’s here because it’s a good use of her time. “I just want to help out the community since we’re in quarantine and we have nothing to do.”
She grabs a plastic bag and heads down the mainstream crop line to the first stop.
Volunteer Emily Harrington hands her some very large beets, almost the size of cantaloupes. Harrington is in high school and says she’s happy to be helping out, even if the room is really hot.
“It’s better to be uncomfortable and help others than be comfortable and have others struggling out there,” says Harrington.
Blong Xiong, the executive director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, takes apart boxes that have been emptied and sets them outside. He points to a table showcasing some of the crops that have been brought in: summer squash, cherry tomatoes, moringa leaves, dinosaur gourds, long beans, bitter melon, and ong choy.
“As you can see all of the different crops that are coming through,” he says. “If we weren’t doing this, it’s probably going to go to waste.”
Instead he says, small farmers are getting a break during the pandemic and providing fresh, free food to people in need.