Searching for Sustainability

Around the world, April is a month of celebrating the Earth. Here in East Tennessee, the timing could not be better. Sleepy spring ephemerals start to leap from the soil, and new leaves transform our rolling hills and misty river banks. The old growth forests that cradle our valley have seen many springs, many summers, and many more years than both you and me. What can these ancient systems teach us about food banking? This month we will be exploring the woods. We will be looking closer at our forest friends, and the lessons they can teach us on sustainability and symbiosis. 

How long is a coastline? If we measure it with a mile long yardstick, we get one answer, but if we use a standard 12” ruler, the number changes. For certain mathematical shapes, we encounter the Richardson Effect: 

Mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson discovered this curious result in the early 20th century while examining the mathematical relationship between the lengths of national boundaries and the likelihood of war. If the Spanish claim that the length of their border with Portugal is 987 km, and the Portuguese say it’s 1,214 km, who’s right? Perhaps there is something between a line and a surface, and a limited amount of information in numerical measurements. 

Only one thing can be sure: the closer we look, the more splendid and complex our world gets. 

The next time you are walking through the forest, look at the floor – and then look closer. How many species can you identify? Who is eating who? Who is protecting who? 

One of the fun things about the forest is that it is sometimes hard to tell. Tree roots blend into warm wet leaves and out from them spring new life. Some systems are so intermeshed that it can be difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. This month, we invite you to look closer at the systems you rely on, who is feeding you? Who are you protecting? What systems are you a part of and participating in? 

Symbiosis is the interaction between two organisms living in close proximity to one another. Like our food systems, ecosystems are incredibly complex and rely on a wide cast of characters to support them. Let’s take a look at a few common examples of symbiotic relationships in both our ecosystems and food systems:

Did you know that trees could talk? 

Not in the same way as you and me, but trees pass messages to one another through an underground network often referred to as the “Wood Wide Web.” What is the difference between this web and the one we surf the net with? Well, for starters this web is made up of fungi. An expansive web of fungal fibers wraps from tree root, to tree root, sending messages across the forest floor. 

Your food bank relies on a wide network as well. Just like how the trees move resources and nutrients across the forest, Second Harvest Food Bank serves more than 200,000 East Tennesseans spanning nearly 8,000 square miles of Appalachia. Like in the forest, feeding our neighbors involves a lot of moving parts. We collect resources and food here in our 92,000 square foot warehouse, then distribute it out to families and friends with the help of our 630+ partner agencies – such as food pantries, shelters and churches.

Click here to find a pantry near you!

In the summer, shaded fur trees receive carbon and sugar from taller birch trees. In the autumn, the furs return the favor as the birches lose their leaves. These trees are playing to their strengths – but also with a mutual understanding that it’s good to help your neighbor, because next season you also might need a hand as well. 

Javan (Food Rescuer) and his father

Second Harvest’s programs are arranged to reach every demographic in every corner of East Tennessee. From programs specific to children and seniors, to programs specializing in meeting families’ needs, no one is forgotten if they are hungry. Meanwhile, food waste continues to be a problem in the United States. According to Feeding America, “72 billion pounds of food goes to waste while 37 million Americans struggle with hunger.”

Just as the birches and furs, our Food Rescue program prevents food waste by “rescuing” nutritious surplus foods from being thrown away and instead gets them into the hands of those who need it most. Each day, 5-6 refrigerated trucks dispatch from our warehouse with a specifically designed route. They travel from store to store, picking up donated goods from food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers and dropping them off at partner agencies (pantries, shelters, senior housing, etc) – stocking their shelves with highly nutritious food, saving those organizations thousands of dollars, and providing food for free to those who need it.

Symbiosis is a story of collaboration. We can see it all around us: bees need flowers, and flowers need bees. They rely on one another, and together they weave the fabric of our world. 

Bees pollinate one-third of the food we eat.

We need bees, we need flowers, we all need each other. Like the bees and the wildflowers in the prairie, our Food Rescue program needs truck drivers. Meet Javan: Javan drives from grocery store to grocery store, loading up food that would be discarded, and then donating them directly to partner pantries on route. This food makes its way to families in need by that night or the next morning. Like the flowers, and like the bees, we would not have food rescue without food rescue drivers! 

Can you identify this plant? 

While walking through the forest, chances are you have passed this quiet patch of milky green clinging tightly to a fallen branch or a damp rocky cliff. Can you identify this plant? 

It’s a trick question. This plant is actually not a plant, but a lichen. A lichen is a composite species – which means that it is actually two species that work together so seamlessly that we can no longer see the lines that separate the two. This partnership is between fungi and algae. The algae turns the sun’s rays into sugar, and the fungus provides a stable structure for them to live in. Both creatures could survive on their own, but when they work together they become something else entirely – something fantastic. 

Each year, Food Rescue saves 9 million pounds of food from going to waste, and instead gets this food to families in need. Like Lichen, our rescue system is a product of seamless partnerships. While grocery stores and food pantries could exist just fine on their own, when they work together they transform into something truly fantastic. 

Let’s Talk:

Many people talk to their dogs and converse with their cats, but not many folks talk to wild birds. Except for hundreds of thousands of years, before me, before you, and before pets, people have been working closely with the honeyguide – a wild bird famous for leading people to honey. Honeyguides have a special call that they use to get people’s attention, and a new study shows that the birds listen for certain human calls to figure out who wants to play follow-the-leader. When the two of them work together, they can both get what they are looking for.

Local Food Purchase Cooperative Agreement Program

From November 2022 to August 2024, Second Harvest Food Bank will be using grant funding distributed by the Tennessee Feeding America Food Banks to purchase food at fair market value from local TN farms and distribute it to families in need here in East TN. The goal of this program is to support local farmers, ranchers and producers throughout the state while strengthening and growing sustainable partnerships in the food distribution community. Whenever possible, we match our farmer’s produce to one of our partner agencies in the same county. This way the food grown from their farms will benefit their community and reduce transportation. Here are three local farms that we are pleased to partner with this year: 


Shannon Miller, Lick Skillet Farm

Over a century ago, George A. Miller, a struggling sharecropper, scraped up enough money to buy a small farm near the Holston River in Jefferson County. The hillside farmland was in bad shape. The erosion led the neighbors to warn that the land was “done wore out.” They speculated he could “never make a go of it,” and would end up having to “lick the skillet.” But it was all he could afford, and through good stewardship, he managed to raise cattle, tobacco, corn, cereal grains, hogs, chickens, and ten children on that land.

A few generations of family farmers bring us to Lick Skillet Farm today – family farm that is thriving. Their pastures support cattle, hogs, hens, sheep, and more employing regenerative grazing techniques, biodiversity and pollinator support, and an eye to future generations that will rely even more heavily on the myriad ecosystem services it provides. They never broadcast synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides; they forgo the use of hormones for weight gain, and never supplement feed with antibiotics.  Our regenerative grazing practices finish animals on lively, biodiverse pastures rich in organic matter: infiltrating water, sequestering carbon, and supporting a host of buzzing, flying, and hopping wildlife.

As did George Miller Senior, the family work tirelessly to steward the land. Rejecting industrial farm practices, Lick Skillet focuses on sustainability over production:  they make caring for the land, and the family and friends it serves, the center of every decision. 


2 Chicks and a Farm, Market Wagon Market Place

Jen and Kim’s garden began small back in 2012. They are a woman-owned and operated farm in New Market, TN. They have a wide variety of offerings, including naturally grown vegetables and fruit – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, kohlrabi, potatoes, okra, cucumbers, zucchini, squash and beans. They also raise a variety of flowers and plants including annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetable plants for home gardeners, and pasture happy, healthy chickens. The produce purchased from 2 Chicks and A Farm in this program gets delivered to Beardsley Community Farm, where they repackage it and organize volunteers to deliver the farm shares to recently settled refugee families with the help of Bridge Refugee Services.

Back on the farm, Kim and farm manager Stacey focus on the day-to-day farm operations, while Jen handles the business side of things and also works full time as an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Jen’s research focuses on food access and affordability, which tie in perfectly with their farm’s purpose of providing healthy, affordable options to their community.

2 Chicks and a Farm prides itself on growing healthy, sustainable products. Jen and Kim do not use any synthetic fertilizers or non-organic pesticides or herbicides on their produce. Chickens are all pasture-raised, meaning they have room to forage and frolic. 


Four Daughters Farm | Walland, TN

Nestled on the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”, Four Daughters Farm sustainably produces a mix of vegetables, fresh herbs, jams, jellies, pickled products, and of course farm fresh eggs. Their farm is a project born out of love. They are a small family farm committed to providing authentic, high quality farm goods grown or made on their very own slice of heaven – but their first and foremost commitment is to the conservation and regeneration of the land that they live on. They see the right to the land as responsibility, and with that they believe in the humane treatment of animals and coexisting with nature to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Four Daughters Farm is rooted in the desire to give back to the community and make local, naturally grown produce attainable, affordable and accessible for everyone.  

If you have never been to Walland, TN – you are in for a treat. In addition to growing food in their magic smoky mountains soil, they run a rentable farmstead for your next mountain get-away.  

We are all in this together

We are entangled with our ecosystems – we simply cannot live without the world beneath our feet and the air that fills our lungs. Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) coined the term “Umwelt” to describe the collective environmental factors that support an organism. While the term translates more directly to “environment” or “surroundings”, it notes a perceptual shift from the lens of the experiencer. A key difference between an Ecosystem and an Umwelt is that an Umwelt notes that every object becomes something completely different on entering a different Umwelt. A flower stem that in our Umwelt is a support for the flower, becomes a pipe full of liquid for the meadow spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius) who sucks out the liquid to build its foamy nest (Uexküll, 2001, p. 108). The sun that lights our day, the foods that we eat, and the friends we keep – they shape our world, and we shape theirs.

We cannot live alone. We all are in this together. 

You can actively participate in building community resilience too!

Help your food bank strengthen our resource network, and consider donating today.