Produce ‘Vultures’ Are Helping Feed the Hungry During the Holidays

Flower City Pickers gives leftovers from farmers markets to local soup kitchens and food pantries.
(Photo: Facebook)
Dec 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When Khoury Humphrey was growing up in rural Oklahoma, even the merchandise at Goodwill was above his parents’ pay grade. Instead of buying secondhand, he and his father, a disabled veteran, would travel together to scavenge for goods from the charity’s metal donation boxes.

“He would throw me inside, and I would hand him things. We’d take what we needed and donated the rest,” Humphrey said.

Back in January, in the midst of the most grueling winter of his five years in Rochester, New York, Humphrey found that he could no longer abide the vast amounts of wasted produce at the city’s Public Market. Drawing on his childhood experience of poverty and extreme thriftiness, he founded Flower City Pickers, a volunteer group that collects what vendors would toss at day’s end and donates it to homeless shelters, halfway houses, soup kitchens, and food pantries.

“It’s very hard for me to un-see something. I’m the type of person who can’t ignore something. I can’t walk by someone who is struggling to get something in the car and not help them,” he said.

Vendors were skeptical at first. Similar efforts had existed at the market in the past but would peter out as volunteers dwindled, and Humphrey also noted that he has facial piercings. But the lessons his father imparted to him about resourcefulness—including the self-reliance classic “If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself”—prevailed.

“I said, ‘Be nice to me, because you’re going to see me every single week.’ It worked. Once they realized I was actually coming back every week and that we were working with the shelters and cooking this food, everybody kind of just jumped on board. It snowballed,” he said.

(Photo: Facebook)

On Saturdays, anywhere from five to 15 volunteers of all ages, including young families and students from the environmental group at the Rochester Institute of Technology, gather boxes of fruits and vegetables from vendors. In one hour, a volunteer can collect 83 pounds of food, and that can feed 15 people, Humphrey explained. In the past year, the group has collected 150,000 pounds of food, which the volunteers sort before donating. “Grade A” produce looks like it belongs on supermarket shelves. Blemished or irregular produce, “Grade B,” needs to be cooked immediately. “Grade C” is composted or fed to animals, including one volunteer’s pig.

Humphrey, who says he’s never organized anything other than role-playing video games, now runs what is essentially a volunteer distribution center. During the lunch hour of his full-time job, he’s on the phone with shelters and food pantries to determine who needs what and in what quantities. He calls the Flower City Pickers “vultures,” but the practice of gleaning, or the gathering of unwanted agricultural leftovers, has been around since long before Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting sympathetically portrayed the extreme poverty of those who practice it. Historically, the rise of social-welfare programs curtailed the need for gleaning, but efforts like that from Flower City Pickers help bridge a gap of contemporary need.

Despite a growing economy, food banks across the country are seeing a rising demand for free groceries and are struggling to meet that need, leading some charities to reduce the amount of food they offer each family, The Associated Press reported in August. This year, U.S. food banks are expected to give away about 4 billion pounds of food, more than double the amount provided a decade ago, according to Feeding America.

“This shouldn’t be a need,” Humphrey said. “But if we weren’t [doing this], all this stuff would go in the trash, and everyone’s OK with that except for us. What we really hope is to influence people to do better, to not be so wasteful.”

In the meantime, and with another winter looming, the group is raising money to refurbish a bus to serve as its winter distribution center.