The Gleaners Go Hollywood

Farmers selling in L.A. can donate to local food banks through Food Forward's Farmers Market Recovery Program.

Food Forward volunteers loading up donations at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)

Jun 4, 2013· 3 MIN READ
writes about ending food waste. He is the author of American Wasteland.

Sometimes Hollywood endings do happen in real life. For example, at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market pixies transform unsold produce into healthy meals for the hungry.

OK, fine—they’re not pixies, but rather hard-working volunteers for the Los Angeles nonprofit Food Forward, which collects hundreds of pounds of produce at each farmers market and passes it along to hunger relief agencies that same day. Yet, through the group’s Farmers Market Recovery program, the transformation is downright magical.

Since launching the program last August, Food Forward has expanded it to five farmers markets, and will be busy this summer working toward its goal of eight markets by the end of the year. The program has rescued twice as much produce as Food Forward Founder Rick Nahmias had anticipated, redistributing about 15,000 pounds of food every month to L.A. soup kitchens. “This program has outperformed our wildest expectations—in quantity of produce recovered, the number of people being fed, and the range of relationships it helps Food Forward build,” said Nahmias.

I saw that overachieving when I visited the Santa Monica Farmers Market on a sunny Wednesday in March. That day, six volunteers in khaki Food Forward aprons and blue hats gathered near the market’s central information booth. At 1:10 p.m., the volunteers—ranging in age from college student to retiree—got the green light from Farmers Market Recovery Program Manager Mary Baldwin to begin soliciting. They fanned out in all four directions.

For the next 30 minutes, the “Glean Team” members distributed Food Forward-branded cardboard boxes to farmers market vendors. The volunteers then returned with handcarts to collect the filled boxes, which that day contained mostly lettuce, broccoli and other greens. By 1:45, the team had amassed 679 pounds of food into three piles of neatly stacked boxes. The corresponding recipient agencies then arrived to collect their fresh produce, the first two rolling up in a pickup truck and a minivan, respectively, and the third showing up with a rolling cart to help ferry the food back to Step Up on Second, located just a few blocks away.

At each market, Food Forward works with local recipient agencies—not often as nearby as Step Up on Second, but usually within 10 miles. Nahmias sees the program as a bridge, connecting these hunger relief organizations with their local foodshed—and its fresh produce. That’s why he refused a donated walk-in-refrigerator worth thousands of dollars, because it would alter the “bridge” model.

“By not holding onto the food, it forces that relief agency to commit to be there on that date,” Nahmias said. “It communicates that there’s an urgency. We’re dealing with fresh produce, not frozen spinach. Someone took the time to grow this, and now it’s your turn to be there on time in order to get it to the people who need it.”

Just as the recipients are pleased at this new source of fresh fruits and vegetables, farmers at the markets have taken to the program. “They appreciate the cause and like having their produce go to good use. They also like not having to take it back to their farm,” said Laura Avery, Santa Monica Farmers Market manager. “I have heard zero negative comments.”

To Nahmias, the clearest compliment has come in the form of growers adapting to the program: “Farmers are actually bringing produce to the market that they were going to compost or plow under, knowing that we are an efficient way to get that food to people who need it,” Nahmias said. “For example: Those weird cauliflowers that are three times the size people would buy.”

That farmer buy-in combined with the scale of some L.A. farmers markets leads to many banner days for Food Forward. For instance, the group gleaned 2,016 pounds from the massive Hollywood Farmers’ Market on October 14, 2012.

And to think that the entire nonprofit likely wouldn’t exist if not for Nahmias’ elderly dog. In 2008, Scout, then a 13-year-old lab mix, was getting older and slower (Sadly, she passed away in 2010). As the speed of their walks diminished, Nahmias noticed more and more unclaimed fruit beneath trees and squashed in driveways. A fruit gleaning operation—Food Forward—stemmed from that observation. And that initial imperative has grown into a multitiered organization that has redistributed more than 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce to those in need.

The Farmers Market Recovery program didn’t come from an “aha moment,” but instead the gradual realization by Food Forward’s core team—now seven strong—that every farmers market created an abundance of unsold, edible food. Here was an opportunity to not only redistribute more fresh food to L.A. residents, but to add some vegetables and a variety of other goods to the boxes of citrus that they were already distributing.

While it has expanded Food Forward’s impact, the Farmers Market Recovery program sticks to Nahmias’ original script. “Whether you want to call it spiritual or ethical, we have a responsibility to harvest what’s in our backyard—be it from a fruit tree or a farmers market,” Nahmias said.