In its four-plus year existence, non-profit organization Food Forward’s 6,000 volunteers have harvested more than 1.7 million pounds of fresh fruit and avocados through their backyard, public and private space “picks.” Now with its Farmers Market Recovery Program, which began in August 2012, every week an additional 3,500 pounds of farm fresh produce are donated to social service agencies that feed those in need.
On Tuesday, October 15, they will begin operating this program at the Culver City Farmers Market. Food Forward is seeking volunteers for their “Glean Teams” which collect fresh produce donated by the farmers at the end of the market day. In Culver City, the produce will serve the 2,500 children participating with the non-profit STAR Inc., which uses food for meals, healthy snacks and teaching tools for basic nutrition instruction and lessons about where food comes from.
Food Forward’s Farmers Market Recovery Program first launched at the renowned Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. When a raggedly dressed man with a tired face holds up a tattered cardboard sign: “Hungry, please help,” just half a block south, Step Up on Second is able to offer him fresh produce from the market, brought in just that day.
Even on a slow winter’s day 26 labeled boxes containing 554 pounds of apples, citrus, salad greens, kale, squash, garlic, turnips, cucumbers, and radishes were collected by friendly volunteers wearing hats and aprons that say “Food Forward.”
The program operates at seven area farmers markets, including Santa Monica, Hollywood, Mar Vista and now Culver City. It extends Food Forward’s mission: helping to prevent hunger by recovering food that might otherwise go to waste, and donating 100 percent of it to agencies serving those in need.
Mary Baldwin, Food Forward’s Farmers Market Recovery Program manager, joined the organization in August of 2012 and launched the program just two weeks later.
“We had to create — and along the way refine — the collection tracking system,” Baldwin says. “We needed to put together the infrastructure, reach out to the receiving agencies, find the volunteers, and get acquainted with the farmers.”
She explains what’s involved: “At the end of the market, we distribute Food Forward boxes so they don’t have to use their own. If they have extra unsold produce, they’ll fill our box with anything they have to give, and we take care of the picking up, weighing, distributing, and providing tax receipts for their donations.”
“They make it easy to be generous; it’s so efficient,” says Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who handed over 30 pounds of garlic, estimated at $4 a pound. “I like that we’re helping people right here in our community. We always have food left at the end of the day, and instead of composting it, this great service lets us give it to a good cause. Everybody wins.”
Mar Vista Farmers Market Manager Diana Rodgers says that Food Forward’s Market Recovery Program is much needed and much welcomed in the community.
“We are thrilled to provide the farmers with a sanctioned program that vets and delivers to local agencies in need. We recently added Grand View Elementary as a produce recipient and we’re delighted to get fruit to kids just a block away from the market.”
Rodgers continued, “I've been waiting the 18 years of my market managing career to have such a well organized and comprehensive organization work in tandem with the market, the farmers and the community beyond to introduce the idea of gleaning to our neighborhood. It's a huge relief to know this wonderful food is getting to those who truly need it most.”
A recipient of produce from both Santa Monica and Mar Vista Farmers Markets, St. Joseph Center in Venice had always wanted to connect with local markets to enhance its food pantry. “Produce items are the healthiest and most requested items in our food pantry,” Executive Director Va Lecia Adams said.
But it lacked the relationships and logistical capacity to sustain such a program. “Food Forward’s ability to network with the farmers and market managers, along with their commitment to packaging the donations for easy pick up made it possible,” she says.
Adams estimates that “a weekly visit to our pantry gives our clients food that would cost about $40 at a supermarket. With our clients’ median household income of around $1,500, it’s kind of like getting a 10% raise,” she added, leaving money for other essentials like rent and utilities.
So far, Food Forward has focused primarily on backyard “picks,” or harvests, accomplished by an army of volunteers who hand-collect a variety of fruit and avocados. Additional programs include private estate picks, specially designed “corporate picks” that encourage employee community service, recovering food from distribution hubs, and now the Glean Teams.
In no small part, it’s the upbeat volunteers and the warm relations they’ve established with the farmers that make the Farmers Market Recovery Program such a success. Mary Baldwin says, “We try to keep it light at the market, but food rescue is a serious mission. At our core, the Glean Teams are food security advocates, who believe access to good food is a basic human right.”
Statistics tell the story in numbers: In 14 months from 2012/2013 across all 7 markets, 245 total collections resulted in 185,567 pounds of produce gleaned and donated by 157 farmers, serving 20 agencies, benefiting approximately 110,000 people, providing 240,000 meals, courtesy of 50 dedicated Glean Team volunteers.
Which leads to Food Forward’s “ask.”
“Now with markets all across the city, and more scheduled to launch, we really need more volunteers,” Baldwin says. “If we’ve done this much good so far, imagine how much more we could do!”
To connect with Food Forward and the Glean Teams, visit www.foodforward.org.Sarah Spitz is a long-time, now retired producer for public radio station KCRW and freelance arts reporter for NPR. She spends her free time advancing the cause of sustainability in food production and distribution and food justice through her nonprofit volunteer work.