Food Forward

August 20, 2015

Food waste recovery organizations are increasing across the globe. This week we profile Food Forward for their work in saving produce in Southern California from going to waste and using it to feed those in need.

Food Forward rescues fresh local produce that would otherwise go to waste, connecting this abundance with people in need, and inspiring others to do the same. Powered by volunteers, the Southern California organization convenes at private properties, public spaces, and farmers and wholesale markets to recover excess fruits and vegetables, donating all of what they glean to agencies that feed those who are most vulnerable. We talked to Rick Nahmias, Founder/Executive Director, about the country’s growing gleaning movement and the importance of changing our attitudes toward food waste and hunger. 

What inspired Food Forward?

Food Forward grew out of my desire to take positive action following the 2008 election which activated me personally. I had been a documentary photographer focusing on social justice topics, with food as something I returned to again and again. (see: The Migrant Project). As the economy began to tank at the end of the Bush years, I saw literally tons of fruit going to waste around my San Fernando Valley neighborhood (former commercial citrus orchards) and growing lines at local food pantries growing. It seemed we had a resource in our own backyards, and it was all a mater of framing it properly and inspiring people to get involved and see their power as change-makers around food and hunger with as little as two hours of work.  

What makes your organization unique from others that are gleaning/rescuing food from restaurant kitchens or other places of common food waste?

I think there are a lot of great organizations doing work around food rescue out there: City Harvest, Rotary First Harvest just to name two. Food Forward’s foundation is built on getting people to shift around how they see abundance in their lives – be it money, time, or in our case, food. We come at this from the approach of harvesting food, fighting hunger and building community – all three are inextricably linked and we find the “solutions-based approach” is different from many larger hunger relief organizations out there.

We also only deal in healthy fresh produce – no granola bars, canned food or empty carbs. The produce our volunteers glean is often fresher than what you or I could buy even in the most high end grocery stores and literally reaches those in need at over 250 agencies within hours.

The backyard harvesting initiative is especially interesting – people don’t usually think about not wasting the lemons on their lemon tree, and a lemon harvest can be quite robust. How much food is wasted just from backyard trees? 

The LA Dept. of Agriculture just a few years ago estimated there were over one million fruit trees in the county. Conservatively an average mature fruit tree we interact with can yield 200-400 pounds (with some going over 1,200 pounds). We are talking an insane amount of food. When you add that much of this waste ends up in landfills emitting methane as it rots it’s even more important to get the message out.

How can we reframe the mindset of what backyard produce can mean to those in need to the people who own the fruiting trees?

We are working on that – a well-funded PSA campaign would be a great start, jointly with some city/county government engagement. LA is in the unique position of having a history as a huge commercial fruit producer. Even with a drought these established trees are a huge mostly-untapped resource. Stewarding all this is a key component as well.

How can consumers/home owners help participate in getting this food to where it is needed most?

Got a fruit tree and don't use the fruit? Then look up a gleaning group in your area. This is a movement on the rise, and there are literally dozens of organizations around the county.

Before you got into the farmers markets, what happened to all that produce at the end of the sales day? What is the benefit for the farmers to be able pass that produce along to you?

A lot of it is tossed – greens, tomatoes, and other fragile produce can’t make it another week or wont survive another market. Food Forward’s Farmers Market Recovery Program offers farmers a viable, reliable and professional level program to get this produce to agencies often just blocks from where they are selling the produce – feeding people who would have no other alternative for healthy eating.

Food Forward’s program is incredibly simple and elegant and relies on these mini-ecosystems we set up between local volunteers, local farmers, and local agencies serving those in need. 

We also give farmers an avenue to bring odd or oversized produce from the market and have it be enjoyed by people rather than plowed under. Farming is a noble profession with an incredibly low profit margin. The last thing they want to do is grow something with their hands and then have to throw it out. 

Lastly, we are able to get the farmers a tax deduction for their donation, albeit a small one.

How important is canning?

It is more than nostalgia. It’s a viable way to prevent personal food waste, a culinary art form and way to experiment with flavors and textures you cannot get anywhere else. Jams, pickles, breads, charcuterie – these are just some of the subjects we cover in our CAN IT! Academy. But the basic thesis underlying it all is that food preserving is the basis of human civilization. We’d be nowhere if we preserve food via the various methods out there: freezing, dehydration, salt curing, and yes canning. Food Forward has created the CAN IT! Academy to teach, inspire and earn funds to help fuel out other programs. In one-off sessions and a 12-week course we are building a whole new community of people who even go off and start artisanal food businesses.

What is the future of the food justice movement?

There is a gleaning movement growing across the U.S. and beyond. People are waking to the conspicuous consumption, oversized portions, and fact we can easily adjust our lives and approach to food waste, and in doing so be more sustainable, and help our communities in need. It’s inspiring and something from my vantage point gives me solid hope that we can do this and do it with great results each year.

We have plans to continue to scale each of our three programs but for the time being we expect to stay in SoCAL. That said, I hope Food Forward can continue to serve as an inspiration and resource for folks wanting to build their own gleaning organizations.  

Can we really change the way people think about food waste and hunger?

I would not have spent the last six years of my life working with over 9,000 volunteers if I didn’t believe so.