Spending money on fresh fruits and vegetables can sometimes be a luxury that seniors on fixed incomes can’t afford.
But thanks to Ken Hawes, American Canyon’s older residents enjoyed strawberries, nectarines, varieties of plums and lettuce, and still more — and all for free — during the return of the city’s Farmers Market in 2016.
“It worked out really well,” said Hawes, who spent 14 weeks gathering thousands of pounds of fresh produce from Farmers Market vendors and distributing it at the American Canyon Senior Multi-use Center.
He did so quietly, drawing little attention to himself as he loaded and unloaded crates of vegetables and fruits that otherwise might have been thrown away after the end of the market on Sundays.
Instead, visitors to the Senior Center on Mondays found a cornucopia of produce awaiting them, all of which was free to take home.
“Our seniors are on limited budgets,” said LaDonna Christoffersen, who runs the center, “and anything they can get for free, it then gives them the opportunity to save for an emergency or a special treat that they don’t normally get to do because they’re getting fruits and vegetables at no cost.”
That was a big reason why Hawes spent his own time, and big chunk of his own money, making this opportunity possible for retirees at no cost to them.
“You can go to the store and buy a bag of chips for 99 cents,” said Hawes, “But if you want to get a pound of grapes, it’s $4.99 or something,” which isn’t always affordable for someone with limited income.
So Hawes approached the vendors at the market and asked if he could have any of their produce they didn’t sell by closing time. Most of them said yes, according to Hawes, who carried away an average of more than 240 pounds of fruits and vegetables each week.
Over the course of nearly four months, he transported more than 3,400 pounds in his own vehicle, and on a trailer he purchased himself for the program, along with bins and a scale.
All told he spent about $1,000 on equipment so seniors could enjoy “free, fresh, mostly organic fruits and vegetables that they wouldn’t normally have access to,” he said.
“And, it kept it out of the landfill,” which also was important to Hawes, who serves as general manager of Valcore, an environmental nonprofit based in Vallejo that run a recycling center and conducts zero waste events, among other things.
The food giveaway was an example of Hawes’ philosophy that seeks to help people and the environment all at the same time.
“My tagline is ‘prevent waste, prevent hunger,’” he said.
While most of the produce he collected went to seniors, some youths in Vallejo also benefited from it. One week, he delivered a carload of fruit to a summer program he heard about through his work at Valcore.
“They wanted to provide a snack that wasn’t Cheetos or Fritos,” said Hawes, so he gave them some peaches, strawberries and grapes.
He got the idea for his program, FoodRescueAmericanCanyon.org, while he was volunteering at his children’s school.
A teacher at Canyon Oaks Elementary School had started a school garden a while back. But once that teacher left, the garden needed a caretaker.
In stepped Hawes, who spent one summer tilling, weeding and watering the vegetables. He got his daughters, Lila and Ava, involved in caring for the garden. They wound up taking that bounty to the senior center as well as to hand out.
“It was going to waste,” Hawes said of the school garden’s vegetables. Plus, it gave him a chance to teach his kids about volunteering and how not to waste food.
His effort this year helping seniors enjoy free produce was very rewarding, he said, recalling how they would bring bags and fill them up before leaving.
“I was getting hugs and thank you’s left and right,” said Hawes. “It felt really good to do it.”