During this growing season in Arkansas, a wide-variety of fresh produce is streaming in to grocery stores and farmers' markets from fields across the Natural State. Arkansas's farms have higher yields than farms in more than half of the other states in our nation. But, like most fields and farms, ours produce more than we can get to market.
Farmers leave behind some of their crop that is missed by harvesters or considered unmarketable. Most consumers simply don't want to buy oddly shaped, bruised, or unripe fruits and vegetables. This excess food, remaining in the fields, is still edible and nutritious, but in the past it has too often gone to waste. Fortunately, a number of creative programs and practices have been implemented in recent years to help feed more of our fellow citizens.
Beginning in 2008, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance began working to connect the unused crops with local food banks through gleaning. Gleaning is the practice of hand-gathering crops left in the fields after harvest. In that first year, volunteers collected 150,000 pounds of produce. Two years later, we began a program that allowed certain inmate crews from the Arkansas Department of Correction to glean fields for the Alliance. Last year, 1.2 million pounds of produce were gathered, with inmates picking 80 percent of that amount.
By receiving locally-grown crops gathered from gleaning, food banks are able to provide nutritious, fresh-from-the fields produce. This is a rare treat for many whose meals come from food-bank staples. A truckload of produce can cost a hunger-relief operation as much as $10,000. Gleaned fruits and vegetables are fresher, and cost the Hunger Relief Alliance less than three cents per pound. We know how important it is to feed more people, but it's equally important that we provide them with more healthful food, as well.
Now, other states are looking to this partnership as a way to reduce hunger in their regions, as well. In fact, the Arkansas Department of Correction has been invited to the Feeding America Food and Operations Conference to present a program detailing their role in the Arkansas Gleaning Project. Officials with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance have also shared information and advice with their counterparts in other states. Arkansas has become a national model for hunger relief, and while that's good for all of us, we're not going to rest on those laurels, either.
Ultimately, hunger officials would like to glean five-to-six million pounds of produce annually. Reaching that level will require more volunteers and more farmers willing to share their surpluses. If you would like to get involved, contact the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.
With your help, we can not only feed more people, but also provide them with enriched nutrition. Better access to fresh produce will enhance the health and well-being of families across our state and benefit Arkansas's outlook as a whole.