Drought squeezes food bank produce

San Jose-based Second Harvest Food Bank, the country’s largest distributor of fresh produce for the needy, is concerned that another drought year for California could reduce its supply of surplus food, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The lack of precipitation in California this January has Second Harvest, which provides fresh fruit and vegetables to 250,000 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties every month, worried that the state is in for a fourth straight year of drought, the group’s chief executive officer Kathy Jackson said.

Crop yields in places such as California’s Central Valley could be down, meaning that less of the state’s yield would be available for donation to food banks by grocery stores, Jackson said. In 2014, Second Harvest received almost 30 million pounds of fruits and vegetables from growers and the California Association of Food Banks for low-income people, the largest amount of any food bank in the nation, she said.

Second Harvest doled out the produce to 330 non-profits for 770 sites such as pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, schools and community centers run by groups including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and YMCA, she said.

Most of the donated produce is in “grade B” condition, cosmetically marred, too large or thin for markets to accept for sale and so made available for free by growers to food banks, which pay only the costs of packaging and transporting it, she said. “We’re the wholesales and aggregators of the food,” she said.

But Second Harvest officials believe that as the drought continues there will be smaller crops, causing the markets to relax their standards and accept the grade B produce for sale to shoppers, meaning less for the food banks.

Also, less rainfall may encourage farmers to grow fewer of the row crops Second Harvest uses the most, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, watermelon, onions and tomatoes, to save more water for trees and vines, she said. Less produce from the Central Valley and environs would also mean that Second Harvest would have to import more farm products from Yuma, Arizona, increasing the bank’s packaging and transportation costs.

Jackson said:

“At the end of the day it really comes down to money, because it will cost us extra to buy fresh fruit and vegetables or we have will have to bring them from further afield.”

The California Department of Water Resources reported that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, an important source of the state’s water, was only 25 percent of its average in January, usually a wet month.

The agency’s website reported that “nearing month’s end, January 2015 was shaping up to be the driest start of the year in California’s weather records” and the lack of rain “has increased the likelihood that California’s drought will extend into its fourth consecutive year and last throughout 2015.”

According to a Feb. 11 drought report on the website of National Climatic Data Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California as a whole recorded the fourth driest January on record last month and the fifth consecutive January that was drier than normal.

San Francisco recorded no rain at all for January for the first time since the city started keeping records 167 years ago — the normal for the month is 4.5 inches — and Sacramento saw nearly nothing, only 0.01 inch of rain, the worst for January since records began in 1877, according to the data center.