Rescuing Rejected Food to Feed the Hungry at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Yolanda Soto is a hero.

At least according to photographer Bryan Schutmaat who photographed her and her work at Borderlands Food Bank for National Geographic. “She wakes up every morning and goes to her office to try and put foods into the hands of people who need it,” Schutmaat explains.

Yolanda Soto, CEO of Borderlands Food Bank, near her home in Nogales, Arizona. The border between the U.S. and Mexico can be made out in the background. Photograph by Bryan Schutmaat

Yolanda Soto, CEO of Borderlands Food Bank, near her home in Nogales, Arizona.

That’s noble. What’s even more noble is that the food Soto shares with hungry people is food that would otherwise rot.

Located in the border community of Nogales, Arizona, Soto is situated in a pivotal spot on the produce route between Mexico and the U.S.—where food could either end up in landfill or on her client’s tables. Why is so much waste happening here?

The fruits and veggies arrive at a distribution area in the U.S. after they cross the border. If that product is not sellable (Soto explains that this can be because “the market is too high, too low, the product has some scarring or a black dot on it, or the tomatoes are missing a stem …”) it will be dumped.

Unless Borderlands can help it.

The food bank originated as a community health center, but got into food because they were administering WIC, a government-funded supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children. Meeting nutritional needs soon became its primary focus.

The interior of the warehouse at Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona. Photograph by Bryan Schutmaat

The interior of the warehouse at Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona.

“What we’ve been doing for 21 years is educating the produce industry not to dump at the landfill,” Soto, who is a Nogales native, says.

Donating actually offers a perk to producers too. “Call us,” she says pitching to me like I’m one of the producers she works with. “I’m saving you all this money because it’s $40 to dump it at the landfill and [you] have to pay to drive there,” she says. “It’s much better for them economically to donate. They want the product they can’t sell off their floor as soon as possible. If we pick it up as soon as we can, which we do, that’s what they want.”

Francisco "Pancho" Martinez feeds his cattle melons unfit for human consumption at his ranch outside Nogales, Arizona. The food waste was gathered from Borderlands Food Bank. Photograph by Bryan Schutmaat

Francisco “Pancho” Martinez feeds his cattle melons unfit for human consumption at his ranch outside Nogales, Arizona. The food waste was gathered from Borderlands Food Bank.

All told, Borderlands gives out 25 to 40 million pounds of produce a year. That fresh food ends up in lots of different places—with individuals who come pick it up themselves and with larger agencies like churches, non-profits, and schools, who pick up on a larger scale.

Because the need spreads well beyond the border, Borderlands created another program called Wheels Without Waste. It’s drivers bring the produce to 69 locations across Arizona where people can pay $10 and walk away with 60 pounds of food. If Borderlands has more than they can distribute in-state, they share with up to 18 other states. And they don’t forget about their sister city across the border, Nogales, Mexico. “They’re registered just like any other client,” Soto says.

(Left to Right) Reyna Cantua, Luis Enriquez, and Ana Cristina Rey, citizens of Mexico, pick up food in the lot of Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona. Photograph by Bryan Schutmaat

(Left to Right) Reyna Cantua, Luis Enriquez, and Ana Cristina Rey, citizens of Mexico, pick up food in the lot of Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona.

The market doesn’t discriminate about what gets dumped. So Soto’s clients end up with some pretty unique fruits and veggies.”Two weeks ago we received jackfruit.” she says. When that happens, Borderlands gives out recipes and post about the new product on Facebook so people will know how to cook what they get. “People just get so excited about it,” she says. And she’s excited about providing healthy food to her clients.

“Not all food banks are able to feed people nutritiously. They do the best they can, but it’s not always feeding people nutritiously, and I think that’s imperative,” she says.

Melinda South picks up food from Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona. Photograph by Bryan Schutmaat

Melinda South picks up food from Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales, Arizona.

You don’t get called a hero if what you’re doing is easy. But feeding people on a self-described “shoestring budget” is her life’s mission, so she makes it work. “What motivates me is the need. And the waste. I cannot understand how wasteful we have become. This produce, if you could see it, is just beautiful product, it’s unimaginable that it’s going into the landfill.”

For more on food waste, see the March cover story in National Geographic magazine and our latest “Today I Learned” video.

 

Becky Harlan is an associate web producer at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.