Yes We CAN! volunteers Fran Engler, Jane Lafferty Katie Lafferty, Mike Aron, Pat Foo and coordinator Kim Kyte at the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market on Nov. 21, 2015.
Yes We CAN! volunteers Fran Engler, Jane Lafferty Katie Lafferty, Mike Aron, Pat Foo and coordinator Kim Kyte at the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market on Nov. 21, 2015.

If you shop regularly at the West Windsor and Princeton farmers markets, or patronize community grocery stores such as the Whole Earth Center, McCaffrey’s, and Pennington Quality Market, you’ve likely encountered volunteers from Yes We CAN! Food Drives. At the farmers markets, they ask shoppers to purchase and donate fresh produce, or to make a monetary contribution so they, the volunteers, can purchase produce from participating farms.

At the supermarkets, you may encounter them at the entrance, not only collecting cash donations but also handing out lists of perishable and nonperishable items needed to restock the food pantries maintained by the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County. Since late 2008, working with the Crisis Ministry, the all-volunteer YWC group has collected more than 125 tons of food to help alleviate hunger in our county.

Beth Feehan, a co-founder of the West Windsor farmers market, calls Yes We CAN! “one of the most impactful efforts of our market that a lot of people don’t know about or realize is taking place.” YWC stands apart from many other hunger relief efforts in its focus on stocking the Ministry food pantries not only with canned and nonperishable items, but with plenty of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and other heart-healthy foods.

For the West Windsor Farmers Market, their foray into providing surplus produce to the food pantries in the early years was via Farmers Against Hunger. “But when our anchor farmer, Neil Robson, passed away,” Feehan explains, “the group wasn’t getting enough to warrant the trip so they stopped coming. In 2009 Yes We CAN! stepped in and brought volunteers to ask for donations of produce, canned goods if people wanted to bring them from home, and money. They then take the money and purchase produce from our farms, often at a great price, at the end of the day.”

This growing season, Yes We CAN! volunteers collected 12,000 pounds of fresh produce from the West Windsor market alone. To give some idea of what that looks like, Chris Cirkus, the market’s manager, notes that an adult African elephant weighs exactly that much. The volunteers at the West Windsor Farmers Market had a banner season, continuing even into late fall when the number of shoppers typically diminishes.

Kim Kyte, a Yes We CAN! volunteer there reported that the group collected $648 in cash on Oct. 31 alone. “An amazing total for this late in the season,” she shared.

Cirkus adds: “Our growers, too, are generous contributors — North Slope Farm, Krowicki Farm, Stults, etc. Most bring additional produce on days that Yes We CAN! attends the market just to sell to the volunteers at very reasonable prices.” One such farmer is Karley Corris of Jeff’s Organic Produce in Monroe. “Karley has been particularly generous in that regard — so much so that a group of Yes We CAN! volunteers recently went out to her farm and gleaned 4,000 pounds of butternut squash!”

Corris says she is happy to support YWC for many reasons. “We donate a lot of food to a lot of food pantries over the course of a year, so we get to see what’s available there: lots of canned stuff, lots of white bread,” she says. “It seems like nobody has the facility to accept perishables. I think for people that use food pantries, that’s a very important part of their diet that’s missing — they simply don’t get fresh produce. And Yes We CAN!, when they come to the market, well, everybody wins.”

Corris says consumers get to see their money being spent immediately to support local agriculture, local businesses and farmers. “The farmers get to sell more produce and have the satisfaction of knowing it’s going to a good cause. And the volunteers work with us,” she says. “They’ll come up to us in the morning and ask, ‘Hey, what are you looking to get rid of? What do you have a lot of? What’s a good price/value today?’ So we’re able to move a lot and they’re able to get a lot. I just don’t see any bad part of it whatsoever.”

The only part of the process Corris hasn’t witnessed is the distribution. Once it leaves her sight, she doesn’t see the end product and can only hope that everything gets used well and there’s not much waste.

But she need not worry: food collected on a Saturday at the market is on the food pantry shelves the following Monday. The Crisis Ministry, which operates two pantries in Trenton and one in Princeton (at Nassau Presbyterian Church), provides enough food to allow the low-income, food-insecure families that are their clients to prepare 12,500 meals per week for themselves. The Ministry partners with nonprofits other than Yes We CAN! to keep their shelves stocked, among them Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, Community Food Bank of NJ, and Farmers Against Hunger. But the 125 tons of food donated by Yes We CAN! over the last seven years makes it the single largest source of food donations.

Yes We CAN! was founded in December 2008 by Liz Cohen of Princeton, who transitioned the grassroots effort she had formed to support the Obama presidential campaign into a volunteer organization focusing on eliminating hunger in Mercer County. The nondenominational Crisis Ministry, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, provides not only access to food, but also financial assistance and employment support services to its clients.

The next Yes We CAN!’s food drive is scheduled to take place on Saturday, Dec. 5 between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at McCaffrey’s Food Market in Princeton. Manager Steve Carney explains why his store participates. “We work with seven different food banks over the course of the year. The reason we like to work with Yes We CAN! in particular is that it’s entirely volunteer driven,” he says. “They have great volunteers who also happen to be loyal customers of our store. Not only that, but they are very involved in the wider community: they’re known and trusted. Plus, our part [in the drive] is very simple: all we have to do is say yes. And there’s no reason for us not to say yes.”

On Dec. 5 volunteers will be stationed at the front and rear entrances to the Harrison Street store, handing out a list of particular food items donors can purchase and donate. Shoppers can also, of course, make cash donations.

As the outdoor farmers market season draws to a close, Karley Corris of Jeff’s Organic Produce says, “I really hope the volunteers can continue doing this with success. There’s no one else doing what they do. Our farm donates to a lot of soup kitchens and food pantries that simply give out the food, and that’s a good thing. But Yes We CAN! does it in a different way and I think that’s a good model.”

For more information about Yes We Can! or to volunteer, visit www.thecrisisministry.org and click on “services.”

Food writer and restaurant critic Pat Tanner has covered the Princeton dining scene for more than 20 years. She blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.