On Sunday afternoons, members of Los Angeles Food Not Bombs converge in the kitchen of a home in Silverlake, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles, to wash, chop, and stir donated vegetables into 15 gallons of stew and 20 gallons of salad. At about 6 p.m., the volunteers load up the food and take it down to Pershing Square. At the public park, they serve meals to about 100 people, mostly men without homes, though anyone is welcome to partake.
For the last three years, the volunteer-run organization has received all their vegetable donations—an average of 383 pounds a week—through a Los Angeles nonprofit called Food Forward. Between April and June 2016, those donations added up to about 3,700 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables—all from vendors at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and all of which might otherwise have gone to waste.
According to Charles Dandino, a long-time volunteer with Food Not Bombs, Food Forward has streamlined the donation collection process, freeing up precious volunteer time for cooking and meal service.
Until recently, Food Not Bombs volunteers would solicit donations from each individual farmer, sometimes ending up with an imbalanced haul—say, 60 pounds of tomatoes and two heads of lettuce. Today, things are much different.
“Food Forward has centralized the food collection from farmers, weighing it out, and giving receipts so farmers can get a tax deduction,” says Dandino. “Plus, each organization gets a variety of produce. The record keeping is outstanding, and they’ve streamlined the entire process as the central hub.”
The Humble Beginnings
Food Forward started in 2009, during the recession, as a tiny volunteer gleaning group. At the time, professional photographer Rick Nahmias was on a walk in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood when he noticed the large amount of mature citrus trees in residents’ front and backyards, leftovers from the commercial citrus orchards that once blanketed the valley.
The remnants of the area’s agricultural history still produced tons of fruit each year, but most of it fell to the ground to rot, be carried off by squirrels, or worse, be tossed into the trash.
For Nahmias, the waste didn’t make sense, especially while people stood in line at the food pantry just a few blocks from his Valley Glen house. In Los Angeles, an estimated 1.4 million people are food-insecure, lacking regular access to healthy, affordable, nutritious food.
Nahmias started small, asking to glean the two tangerine and Naval orange trees in neighbor’s yard. The first day, he ended up with 85 pounds of tangerines, which he donated to a nearby food pantry. A subsequent glean in the same location produced 800 pounds of citrus.
“It was just kind of a watershed moment,” says Nahmias.
In California nearly six million tons of food products are dumped annually and food waste is the largest single source of waste. According to a 2014 study by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, food comprises 18.1 percent of the state’s total waste stream or 5,591 tons a year.
Armed with information about the 1996 Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which allows anybody to donate food in good faith without fear of legal retaliation or liability issues, Nahmias founded Food Forward. The organization’s mission became to rescue fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste, connect the abundance with people in need, and inspire others to do the same.
Seven years later, the organization, powered by 7,000 registered volunteers and 18 paid employees, has donated more than 25 million pounds of produce from backyards, public spaces, farmers’ markets, and the downtown Los Angeles wholesale market. The donations supply 150 local hunger relief agencies and have fed almost 1.3 million people a year.
How did Food Forward scale up from 85 pounds of tangerines to the thousands of pounds of produce it recovers each week? Slowly, says Nahmias.
Food Forward began with the Backyard Harvest Program, which sends volunteers to more than 525 private and public properties in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara Counties to glean. Within 48 hours of collecting the produce, the volunteers deliver it to direct service agencies for free.
One of the first of its kind in Los Angeles, the Backyard Harvest program steadily grew in popularity. In 2011, Nahmias officially took the reins as paid executive director, a role he holds to this day, and hired a staff, which has since quadrupled to 18 people, to manage the expanding roster of programs.
In 2012, Food Forward took another step forward, launching the Farmers’ Market Recovery Model. Currently operating at two Ventura and 17 Los Angeles-based farmers’ markets, it is the only formal, market-endorsed system in Southern California for farmers that want to donate their unsold produce to hunger relief agencies. Food Forward volunteers canvass farmers at the end of the market day, collecting donations of unsold produce, fruits, nuts, and dried fruit.
“When farmers realized they could get a tax donation for the amount of pounds they donate, lighten their load driving back to the farm, and help people in need, it was a no brainer,” says Nahmias. “We were able to architect a reliable, professional system. We were there week in and week out, and we were transparent about where the food was going. We would tell them exactly how many pounds went to each agency, and all of the agencies were local. These were folks in the same neighborhood who were in need, and so it had a very low carbon footprint.”
Chelsea Frazee, 28, has volunteered with Food Forward for three years. She’s now a lead market coordinator at the Hollywood farmers’ market. Twice a month, the Venice resident coordinates volunteers, hands out boxes to farmers, weighs all the produce that comes in, and coordinates pick-ups by receiving agencies like Food Not Bombs.
Frazee estimates that she and the other volunteers have collected up to 3,000 pounds of food in one day. “The generosity of the farmers in pretty amazing,” she says. “And they are grateful for what we are doing. One farm in particular sends back everything they don’t sell with us. Last weekend, they donated thirty boxes of food.”
Thirty boxes of food is significant, but when compared to the millions of pounds of waste produced annually at a place like the Los Angeles wholesale produce market, one of the largest wholesale districts in the U.S., the magnitude of the problem really becomes clear.
For that reason, Food Forward launched their third flagship program, The Wholesale Recovery Program, in 2014. Through the program, Food Forward collects and distributes large, orphaned, surplus loads of viable produce from 56 participating wholesale vendors.
The first year the program was in place, with one half-time employee and a borrowed truck, they expected a yield of about 300,000 pounds of food, but received way more—4.3 million pounds in total. Now, a manager coordinates donations and pick-ups, which can run upwards of 15,000 pounds per truck.
One factor that enables Food Forward to rescue food so efficiently is its lack of infrastructure. Receiving agencies use their own refrigeration and distributing mechanisms to get the food out to the people who need it.
“We’re the broker, but we currently don’t take possession of the food for more than a short truck ride,” says Nahmias. “We have five large recipients near downtown Los Angeles, and they all have the ability to refrigerate and/or redistribute these huge loads to 20 to 50 agencies on their own.”
Still, as a young nonprofit, Food Forward deals with issues of capacity and sustainable funding. They want to expand into classrooms with curriculum that teaches kids about the downfalls of food waste.
Nahmias also sees many more opportunities to capture food waste. He estimates that Food Forward isn’t even hitting a fraction of the approximately one million residential fruit trees in Los Angeles. Then there are the 180 farmers’ markets in the region. And what about the immense amounts of edible produce still being thrown into the trash at the Los Angeles produce market?
Gleaning organizations with limited resources are scrambling to do what they can. “We’re still scratching the surface of everything,” Nahmias says.
Photo credits: Gunther Schulz, Food Not Bombs, Rachel Jacobson