July 28, 2013

His passion for food benefits the hungry

A Colby food services manager leads an effort to redirect extra produce where it's needed most.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

Joe Klaus, who oversees the food services at Colby College, says many Mainers go hungry despite widespread food surpluses.

click image to enlarge

Hanne Teirney of Cornerstone and Fail Better Farms offers fresh organic produce to Noma Moyo, 21, a Colby College junior, and Joe Klaus, food services manager at Colby College, at the Waterville Farmers Market on Thursday.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

"Having available food is not the issue. And when it comes to hungry people, the need is great," Klaus said Thursday. "The issue is connecting the dots."

One such unconnected dot came to Klaus three years ago, in the form of several thousand pounds of unsold potatoes sitting in a warehouse.

The warehouse was owned by Fedco, a Waterville-based co-op that every year sells about 400,000 pounds of seed potatoes along with seeds, bulbs and other supplies to growers.

Fedco coordinator David Shipman said the excess potatoes are used as animal feed if no one comes forward to put them to better use.

One member, Tom Roberts, who owns Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield and is a member of the Maine Harvest for Hunger, knew just what to do.

He called Klaus.

Klaus has two permanent reminders of what he says was an accident-prone boyhood.

The first is a faintly visible scar on his upper lip, caused by a mishap with an ax.

The second is his enduring passion for food.

When he got the call, Klaus and a co-worker drove to Fedco's warehouse in Clinton and loaded the enormous pile of spuds into a box truck.

He then hauled them back to the Colby campus in Waterville and began calling the 25 or 30 local food pantries that he has worked with in similar situations. Some came to pick up their share of the bounty, while Klaus arranged for delivery to others. A dining services manager volunteered to fill his trunk with the potatoes to drive them to a pantry in Vassalboro.

In a matter of days, the potatoes had all been put to use, helping to feed people in need.

TRYING TO MEET BIG CHALLENGE

Getting the perishable potatoes to people who need them is just the sort of time-sensitive challenge Klaus faces on a daily basis in the dining halls of Colby.

In his 31 years with Sodexo, the company that provides Colby's dining services, he's dealt with disasters caused by fires, gas outages and blizzards.

But eliminating child hunger in the region is a much bigger challenge. Klaus has tackled it with all of his energy and talent, having directed 300,000 pounds of produce to food pantries, as a member of Maine's Harvest for Hunger, a major player in combating hunger in the state.

Still, Klaus said, he is "small peanuts" compared to the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which performs a similar function at its Auburn location.

In Waterville, nearly one in four children is considered "food insecure," meaning that they don't have a regular and reliable source of food.

Since coming to Colby in 1998, Klaus has organized food drives and found low-cost refrigeration equipment for local pantries.

He has helped to raise both money and vegetables, the latter in the form of a campus garden that was begun at Colby in 2008 and which directs 1,500 pounds of vegetables a year to those in need.

CULTIVATING A NETWORK

Klaus knows the national food supply chain well, in part through regular visits to New England's largest food hub in Boston, which sees about 60 percent of the produce sold throughout the region.

The nation's food chain is rife with inefficiencies, he said, because of the uncertainty of what will happen between the time a seed is planted and the time the end result is sold.

The system for food to be sold is robust, typically getting food from a farm in California to a plate in New England in three days. But there is no well-developed system to deal with the byproduct of the inefficiencies: the food that is not sold.

(Continued on page 2)

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