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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Los Angeles-based Org Food Forward Gleans the Way to Urban Food Security

October 21, 2011 |

It sounds like an elementary school word problem: If Sally has 10 oranges and Josh has zero oranges, how many oranges will Josh have if Sally gives him hers? It’s a problem with a simple enough solution on paper, but one that often gets complicated when it’s transferred to real life.

That’s where Los Angeles’ Food Forward comes in. The nonprofit takes surplus food and distributes it where there’s a deficit. The result? Winning to the fourth power.

Food Forward was founded in Van Nuys, Calif. in 2009 by Rick Nahmias. As the story goes, he was walking down the street and realized that his neighborhood was full of fruit that was dropping to the ground and being wasted. So he called up his buddies and they got to harvesting. They collected 300 to 400 pounds of food that day, and the seed for Food Forward was planted.

The concept is simple enough: Food Forward coordinates landowners and volunteers to harvest excess fruits and veggies and donate them to food pantries and humanitarian organizations. The benefits are quadruple – Food Forward provides a rare and coveted commodity to those most in need, enables other nonprofits to be more effective and keeps food out of landfills – all while building a sense of community in a city that has a reputation for being isolating. Winning to the fourth power.

From Tree to Mouth

Two and a half years after its inception, Food Forward has donated around 580,000 pounds of food – the equivalent of about 2.5 million servings – and helped feed about 400,000 individuals. All using food that would otherwise have gone to waste.

“All of this extra, excess food is filling up the landfills. It’s crazy. It’s ridiculous…Especially in cities, like L.A., with low food security,” explains Food Forward Managing Director Meg Glasser. “There’s food out there, there’s hungry people, it’s silly.”

Glasser says that they work with 25 local recipient agencies, ranging from large food banks to a variety of community nonprofits, such as Project Chicken Soup, which prepares and delivers free meals to Angelenos living with HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses, and Under The Bridges and On the Streets, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the homeless where they live – on the streets, under bridges and in camps. Many of the recipients would have little or no access on their own to the fresh fruits and vegetables that Food Forward provides. “A whole, local food is something special for them to get,” explains Glasser.

One of the most rewarding moments for Glasser is when she arrives at the downtown women’s center with her pick-up truck full of food to drop off. “I’ll walk inside and right when I walk in, I say ‘I’m here and ready to deliver the fruit.’… The recipients of the food come out to unload my truck. They’re super excited and thanking me so much, and it’s so nice to have that one-on-one contact with the people that you’re working for.”

The criteria for being a recipient agency is fairly straightforward: They need to be a 501(c)(3); they must distribute the food they receive from Food Forward within 72 hours; and ideally, they’ll pick up the food from Food Forward. Food Forward also looks for groups that serve different communities, so that the produce can stay as local as possible. “When we pick in Van Nuys, we want the food to stay in Van Nuys,” explains Glasser. “Really, within five miles is our goal.”

To the extent that they can, Food Forward tries to harvest wherever it’s invited. That ranges from residences to ranches, farms and public properties, such as Cal State Northridge University, which has a 300-tree orange grove that Food Forward harvests twice a year. At this year’s September 11 campus pick, they raked in 18,000 pounds of fruit. Food Forward also tries to give preference to elderly or disabled people who can’t harvest their own produce, and properties with unique produce, to give volunteers and recipients some variety.

A recent Food Forward pick in Moorpark, CA that yielded 2600 lbs of Valencia Oranges. Photo: Bob Glatt

It Takes a Village

With only three staff members, Food Forward relies heavily on its 2500 volunteers for the three to four weekly picks. Of these volunteers, about 600 or 700 help pick at least every other month. Glasser attributes part of the strength of their volunteer base to the community feel that the picks create. She says the harvests can be almost as beneficial for the volunteers as for recipients.

“When you come out of a pick, you really get it,” explains Glasser. “There are several groups that are gaining from the experience. It’s not just the people who receive it.”

In addition to helping feed the hungry in their community, volunteers get to work outside, with their hands, with a group of fellow community-minded strangers who soon become friends. “It’s easy,” says Glasser. “Go out for two hours, pick the food, it’s fun, it’s a great way to end your day or start your weekend.”

Food Forward also hosts private picks as team building exercises for companies, churches and various other groups to help fund its operations. Additional funds are also raised through a food preserving workshop called Can It! in which canning enthusiasts take hands-on lessons from preserving experts.

Like most young nonprofits, Food Forward has had to be creative with its resources, and faces budget-related obstacles. Glasser says that one of their main challenges so far has been trying to service all of the willing properties with only one van.

“We could always raise more and always do more,” says Glasser. “We have dozens of property owners that we haven’t been able to get to because we only have one van.”

Over the next few years, Food Forward’s main goal is to keep expanding its reach. It opened its first branch this year, in Ventura County, and hopes to be able to open more in the coming years, perhaps in Riverside or Orange County. It also plans to launch a farmers’ market recovery program next year, in which volunteers go to farmers’ markets at the end of the day and glean food that wasn’t sold and can’t be stored.

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