By Sarah A. Spitz
At Thanksgiving we focus our gratitude on the bounty of food overflowing our tables. In California we’re blessed with a wide selection of local farm-grown produce, and many of us have backyard gardens and fruit trees that offer fruits and vegetables year-round.
But the sad statistic across the country, according to an August 2012 white paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council, is that up to 40% of food goes to waste for various reasons while hunger persists.
Food Forward is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization helping to change that equation. In less than five years, Food Forward has mobilized an army of some 6,000 volunteers to harvest more than 1.7 million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables through backyard, public- and private-space “picks,” with all that food donated to social services agencies that feed the hungry.
With its new farmers market recovery program, Food Forward is collecting an additional 3,500 pounds of farm-fresh produce on average each week.
The program launched in August 2012 at the Wednesday farmers market in Santa Monica and grew to include seven local area farmers markets, including Santa Monica, Mar Vista and Culver City.
The farmers market in Mar Vista has been participating since March.
Diana Rogers, manager of the Mar Vista market, told me that vendors welcomed having a program that delivers donations to vetted food distribution agencies. Now some of what’s collected goes to children at Grand View Elementary School.
“We’re delighted to get fresh fruit to kids just a block away from the market,” Rogers told me. “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.”
I first heard of Food Forward very early in its existence and wanted to help further its essential goals of preventing food waste and sharing our bounty with the most vulnerable among us. Having helped harvest mandarin oranges at a recent private estate pick, I’m proud to say that I am now a volunteer member of Food Forward’s advisory board, aiding its small but highly effective staff to ramp up operations in a sustainable way.
Corporate picks help build teamwork while serving the community, and even though backyard harvests and the farmers market recovery program seem like such obvious ideas, it takes organizational skill and logistical management to make these ideas an ongoing reality.
But Food Forward’s farmers market recovery program needs more volunteers to bring fresh vegetables to people in need. You can help spread the bounty by giving up a few hours of your time at a local farmers market.
Mary Baldwin, manager of Food Forward’s market recovery program, explained that a lot of work went into starting the project and keeping it going.
“We needed to put together the infrastructure, reach out to the receiving agencies, find the volunteers and get acquainted with the farmers,” Baldwin said. Now, “at the end of the market, we distribute Food Forward boxes so farmers don’t have to use their own [containers]. If they have extra unsold produce, they’ll fill our box with anything they have to give, and we take care of picking up, weighing, distributing and providing tax receipts for their donations.”
The system works well for vendors, said Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms.
“They make it easy to be generous; it’s so efficient,’ Weiser said. “I like that we’re helping people right here in our community. We always have food left at the end of the day. Instead of composting it, this great service lets us give it to a good cause. Everybody wins.”
St. Joseph Center in Venice had always wanted to connect with local markets to enhance its food pantry, but the organization lacked the relationships and logistical capacity to sustain such a program, according to Executive Director Va Lecia Adams.
“Produce items are the healthiest and most requested items in our food pantry,” Adams wrote in an email. “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 [receiving the produce] possible,” she wrote.
Adams estimates that a weekly visit to the St. Joseph Center pantry gives struggling residents food that would cost about $40 at a supermarket.
“With our clients’ median household incomes at around $1,500 per month, it’s kind of like getting a 10% raise,” she wrote, “leaving money for other essentials like rent and utilities.”
According to Baldwin, it’s the upbeat volunteers and the warm relationships they’ve established with the farmers that make the program such a success.
“We try to keep it light at the market, but food rescue is a serious mission,” Baldwin said.
Volunteers are “food security advocates who believe access to good food is a basic human right,” she said.
The numbers tell the story: 245 collections over 14 months at seven markets resulted in 185,567 pounds of produce donated by 157 farmers to 20 agencies, benefiting about 110,000 people by helping to provide 240,000 meals — all from the work of about 50 dedicated volunteers.
Now imagine what 100, 200 or even 300 could do.
Volunteers will be picking lemons on Saturday in Culver City. On Sunday we return to the Mar Vista and Santa Monica farmers markets. Come join us.
To find out how to become a Food Forward volunteer, call (818) 530-4125 or visit foodforward.org.
Sarah A. Spitz, a member of Food Forward’s advisory board, retired in 2011 from her longtime role as publicist for KCRW 89.9 FM in Santa Monica.