This project was partly funded by the Grow Fund, a community grant program the Food Co-op started nearly 3 years ago. Yearly, August 1 – August 31, applications will be open for Jefferson County non-profits to apply for a grant to help GROW our local food system.
FREEZE DRYING PROJECT PHASE 1 COMPLETE
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Last year, Sue Cross was helping a local group to fill “weekend” sacks with food for kids who depended on free or reduced price school breakfast and lunch during the school week but had little or no food over the weekend, and wondered, “Could we give kids who need food for the weekend something that isn’t full of sugar and has higher nutritional value than most commercially available foods?” It would have to taste good to kids, be easy for kids to use, and at a cost the group could afford. Thinking back to boating and backpacking experiences, she remembered how enthusiastically her own children had reacted to freeze dried fruit. Unfortunately, commercial freeze dried fruit is expensive and would cost more than the group could afford. That led to combing the internet for information on freeze drying. Sue discovered a small company that had a unique product: “residential size” freeze dryers. Until these machines became available, freeze dryers were large and very expensive. The idea came: what if a non-profit could raise the money to buy these smaller freeze dryers and then freeze dry some of the locally grown donated fruit and produce that food banks can’t give away in time? That would cut the cost of producing the freeze dried food substantially.
Freeze drying solve a few other problems as well: “What do food banks do in the winter when fresh harvest isn’t coming in?” And, “how does a rural county create a community supply of food for that predicted big earthquake we may have-someday-or for emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic?”
As Sue explained the idea of freeze drying to various community groups, most were supportive. The food banks saw the possibilities right away. Judy Alexander of the Food Council was interested. The idea really took off when Sue met Kathy Ryan at a Food Council meeting. Kathy, an active gardener in Port Townsend, was president of a group called Food Bank Farm and Gardens of Jefferson County (FBFG). Not a part of the food bank organization, FBFG was originally established as a way for volunteers to grow fresh organic produce for donation to county food banks. FBFG has expanded tremendously in the seven years since beginning: volunteers are on track to grow and harvest nearly twice as much as last year, or around 15,000 pounds of fresh, organic veggies in nine gardens scattered in the eastern part of the county. This will all be coming into the food banks-along with produce from many other sources-within a fairly short time window in the summer. Now another question was added to the list: How do we keep this fresh produce from spoiling because there’s so much coming at one time? How do we preserve produce and fruit that is perfectly edible and nutritious, but not cosmetically attractive? How do we make sure there are high quality vegetables available at food banks in the winter months?
Sue and Kathy realized that freeze drying might be one possible answer for all of these questions, and the FBFG governing board agreed. Last year, FBFG expanded its original purpose of growing the food to include answering the question of how to preserve the harvest that isn’t given away fresh so that there will be food available when no harvest is coming in. FBFG organized a team to plan the acquisition and implementation of a two-phase pilot plan: the first part of the pilot project is to raise money to purchase two “residential size” freeze dryers, place them in a licensed kitchen, and put them to use. The second phase of the pilot project will collect data about what produce freeze dries most effectively, how long it takes (different foods require different cycle times in the freeze dryer), how best to plan and schedule around harvest times, what freeze dried foods are the most popular, and how to use freeze dried vegetables and fruit for best results. The data collected from using these two initial freeze dryers should answer other questions, including “Would it be worthwhile to expand this program, and what would it take?” “What would the logistics be like?” “How would expanding this project help food security in Jefferson County?” and, “Is there a way to expand this initial pilot into a small business opportunity?” This meant embarking on the biggest money-raising campaign the group had ever undertaken.
Now, thanks to many generous individual donors, long-time supporters of the Port Townsend and Tri-Area Food Banks, Jefferson Community Fund, the Food Co-op, and a grant from the state sponsored by Rep. Steve Tharinger, the first phase of the project is complete. FBFG has purchased and installed two freeze dryers at the Old Alcohol Plant in Port Hadlock, WA. Donations from many individuals, and organizations, including made the purchase of the two freeze dryers possible. We anticipate that in the first season up to 1500 pounds of fresh organic produce can be “rescued” and preserved for use by the food banks in Jefferson County. For more information about the Food Bank Farm and Gardens and possible volunteer opportunities, see https://ptfoodbankgarden.com.
So what is freeze drying? Freeze drying is not simply freezing, and it is much more than just dehydrating. In freeze drying, food is placed on trays in the chamber of the freeze dryer and quickly cooled to -40 degrees F. This quick freezing creates tiny ice crystals that do not break cell walls in the food the way slower freezing does, and means the food keeps its original texture when rehydrated. Once the food is at -40F, air is pumped out to create a vacuum within the chamber. Still in a vacuum, the food is gently heated to allow it to return to room temperature. In the vacuum, ice inside the food does not melt; the frozen water “sublimates” as its temperature rises, which means it changes directly into water vapor, which flows out of the freeze-drying chamber. At the end of the freeze drying cycle about 96% of the water originally in the food has been removed from the food. The food is now freeze dried, and properly packaged can be stored for 20 years or more and retain about 97% of its original nutritional value, a higher percentage than in canned or dehydrated food. This solution brought other challenges with it: to ensure food safety, the produce had to be prepared in a licensed kitchen by licensed food handlers under licensed supervision. Produce must be washed and sometimes sliced, trimmed, or blanched before placing on trays to put into the freeze dryers, and each type of produce requires somewhat different handling. Last, the freeze dried food has to be packaged in special bags that allow it to be stored for up to 20 years. Adding to the complexity is the freeze drying process itself, which requires substantial specialized knowledge.
FBFG found a partner uniquely equipped to house and operate the freeze dryers, with goals that supported and added to FBFG goals for the freeze dryer project: The Old Alcohol Plant in Port Hadlock. Their restaurant kitchen, Spirits Bar and Grill, is fully licensed, and their restaurant staff will handle the preparation and freeze drying of produce provided by FBFG from their gardens.
The photo above shows summer squash and zucchini freeze dried by the Old Alcohol Plant and placed in a standard ZipLoc(tm) bag. Special Mylar bags are used when the freeze dried food is to be kept for long term storage.
At the heart of the Old Alcohol Plant is Bayside Housing & Services. Bayside provides transitional housing, meals and services to those most in need and depends on the Old Alcohol Plant and Spirits Bar and Grill for much of its funding. With the freeze dryers, the Old Alcohol Plant will also have an opportunity to develop unique freeze dried products for its own use or for sale, and possibly involve some residents in the freeze drying process. For more information about the Old Alcohol Plant and Spirits Bar and Grill, see https://www.oldalcoholplant.com. Both organizations are excited about the partnership and are looking forward to the next steps.
Stay tuned for what’s next!