One organization that helps the produce industry put the heart in America’s heartland is the Society of St. Andrew West, which partners with growers, packers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers to help feed hungry people.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of this year, the group’s Kansas City, Mo., headquarters redirected more than 2.5 million pounds of fresh produce.

SoSA West pays to transport the produce to a variety of hunger relief organizations west of the Mississippi River.

Lisa Ousley, director at the Kansas City headquarters, said the U.S, Department of Agriculture reports 50 million people in America are “food insecure,” even though economists say the recession is over. She said the food SoSA West provides costs about 2 cents per serving.

“Traditionally, food banks and food pantries have provided canned, packaged and processed food — shelf-stable items — but we all know our bodies need fresh fruits and vegetables to grow strong and healthy,” Ousley said. That’s why the society has focused on fresh produce for 32 years.

With a two-person staff, the Kansas City office has redirected more than 13 million pounds of fresh produce since it opened in May 2008.

“We are the growers’ and packers’ friend because we clear out the culls and pay for packaging and freight to get them to hungry people,” Ousley said. “And their donations are tax deductible.”

Ousley said SoSA also accepts rejected loads, helping truckers who need to stay on schedule for their next pickup. Whether it’s an entire semitrailer load or just one pallet, SoSA West has a network that can pick up the rejected produce, glean it and send edible portions to hunger-relief organizations.

“I think that our use of rejected loads provides a real partnership opportunity for SoSA West and growers, packers, wholesalers, shippers, truckers, etc.,” Ousley said.

“In one case, a grower called with 12 pallets of cantaloupes that had been rejected at a Wal-Mart distribution center near Tulsa, Okla. We picked it up, he got a tax write-off and avoided dumping costs.”

In some cases, excess produce comes already picked and packaged, as is the case with donations by Good Natured Family Farms, a cooperative outside Kansas City. The society also has volunteers who regularly pick up excess produce from growers at farmers markets.

In other cases, as with Bates County Produce in Rich Hill, Mo., volunteers go to packing plants and glean “graded-out produce” that may not be the perfect size or shape for retail distribution, but is still perfectly good to eat, Ousley said.

Distributors such as Liberty Fruit Co., Kansas City, Kan., and Loffredo Fresh Produce, Des Moines, Iowa, as well as retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart also regularly donate fresh produce to SoSA.

The other main gathering activity for SoSA West is its field gleaning work, Ousley said.

Volunteer teams in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri can be mobilized quickly to clear harvested fields and orchards of nutritious vegetables and fruits that would otherwise be left to rot or plowed under, she said.