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Call it the great corn rescue of 2012.
Big ripe ears of Minnesota sweet corn destined to become Green Giant niblets were instead going to be wasted. With a bountiful harvest this month, the cannery simply couldn't process it all.
Then a new campaign -- handiwork of local food relief groups and corporations -- swung into action, quickly moving the corn from the fields to the food banks. "It's beautiful corn, and it only lasts for a period of time," said Ellie Lucas, chief campaign officer for Hunger-Free Minnesota.
The immediate result: 600,000 pounds of corn was transformed into 465,000 meals eaten by people in 10 states. The bigger picture: success for a pilot program that can, it is hoped, be replicated in the widespread battle against hunger and food waste.
When costs are measured as a percentage of income, Americans have the cheapest food on the planet. Choices seem boundless, maybe too boundless given that Americans are also among the planet's fattest people.
Yet hunger remains an issue, more so since the Great Recession's onset. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this month that 6.8 million, or 5.7 percent, of American households last year had very low "food security," a step back to 2008 and 2009 levels.
Globally, North Americans waste the most food, according to a 2011 study for a United Nations agency. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says food makes up the greatest share of this nation's municipal waste, often rotting in landfills and emanating a potential greenhouse gas.
There's growing awareness among food relief groups and food corporations that working together can make a dent in hunger and waste. Hence, efforts like the sweet corn rescue.
It's part of a broader program in the works for months that's aimed at turning unused agricultural surpluses into dinner. At its heart is Hunger-Free Minnesota, a group supported by food banks, nonprofits and companies.
The corn project featured Second Harvest Heartland, Golden Valley-based General Mills, Eden Prairie-based Supervalu, Minnetonka-based Cargill and upstate New York's Seneca Foods, which has several vegetable processing plants in Minnesota. Cargill ponied up a $1 million grant, too.
Seneca freezes and cans Green Giant vegetables in an arrangement with General Mills, owner of the famous brand. Minnesota is the nation's largest producer of sweet corn and peas.
The vegetable industry has long grappled with "bypass," a problem arising when crop growth is out of sync with a cannery's processing schedule, exceeding its capacity. Freshly picked vegetables can't simply be stacked for months like sugar beets; they must be frozen or canned immediately.
The usual "bypass" solution is plowing under a crop, or cutting it down for animal silage. (Farmers under contract still get paid for their crop).
Hunger-Free Minnesota estimates that more than 210 million pounds of sweet corn, peas and potatoes go unharvested annually in Minnesota.
Seneca ran into a bypass problem in early September, and the rescue operation quickly went into motion. Trucks that would normally move just-picked corn in Renville County to a Seneca plant, instead drove it to Cargill's grain storage facility in Savage.
There, Cargill employees -- cumulatively donating about 150 hours -- took 12 truckloads of corn and packed it into "totes" that were placed on pallets. The pallets were transferred to refrigerated trucks provided by Supervalu and then carried to Second Harvest in Maplewood and the Emergency Food Network in New Hope.
Both hunger relief groups then further distributed the corn, with Second Harvest sending some to Feeding America food banks in other states. Such a large amount of a perishable product couldn't be absorbed by Minnesota food banks alone, said Rob Zeaske, Second Harvest's CEO.
Small Minnesota farmers have donated surplus to Second Harvest, but the Seneca job marked the first major agricultural rescue, he said. "This kind of scale, this industrial level, was something new."
Food rescues on a retail level are not so new, but they are growing. For years, Second Harvest has teamed with Supervalu's Cub Foods and other local grocery chains to spare perfectly good meat and produce from the landfill.
The food has hit its "sell-by" date, which retailers affix to denote maximum quality. But many products will remain nutritious, safe and edible beyond that date. Second Harvest collected about 500,000 pounds of food from local supermarkets five years ago. It will do 24 million pounds this year.
Manufacturers such as General Mills, a catalyst for the corn project, sometime donate directly to food banks, too.
Mislabeled packages -- the food within them perfectly fine -- are given away. The same for production over-runs. General Mills once had an inventory surplus of pineapple for its Wanchai Ferry frozen dinners, so the fruit was donated to Feeding America food banks.
Said Jerry Lynch, General Mills' chief sustainability officer, "We are always looking for an opportunity to eliminate food waste."
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003