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This Group Has Rerouted 250 Million Pounds of Food From Landfills to Feed People in Need

Free, high-quality produce donations are so rare in Tahlequah, Oklahoma that Stacy Serrano, vice president of the Rural Community Initiative Foundation (RCIF), thought it was too good to be true when she first received a call offering a free truckload of fresh fruits and vegetables from the California-based advocacy group Vegan Outreach. “Honestly, I thought he was fibbing,” laughs Serrano.

Yuri Mitzkewich, the Vegan Outreach program leader who made the call, was shocked when he visited Tahlequah, home to the largest number of native Cherokee speakers in the country. Fresh food was hard to find, and dollar stores were the only places to buy groceries for miles around.

The costs of transporting fresh fruits and vegetables into the region are high, Mitzkewich says. A combination of inflationary price spikes for fresh produce and a pandemic-driven shortage of transport options have made prices even steeper.

Since 2020, Cherokee Nation residents have been able to access produce at two Talequah community centers that receive fruits and vegetables from Vegan Outreach and its partner, Food Forward, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that aggregates pallets and truckloads of surplus produce from growers and shippers in Southern California that might otherwise go to waste.

“Food Forward helped us get nutritious, fresh whole foods to these communities that would rarely be able to access it to begin with,” says Mitzkewich. “They’d be priced out of it, even if they were able to get some.”

Based in the region that receives and ships the most food in the U.S., Food Forward has built an extensive recovery network that enables it to support food distribution partners on a local and a nationwide scale. Founded in 2009, Food Forward reached a milestone in June of 250 million pounds, or 1 billion servings, of fresh produce recovered and donated to food insecure communities.

That achievement is both a sign of how the organization has mastered the flow of produce distribution in Southern California and the degree to which the pandemic has intensified needs among communities that were already facing dire food insecurity.

A produce distribution center in the Cherokee Nation. (Photo credit: Yuri Mitzkewich, Vegan Outreach)

“We’re all kind of under this umbrella, feeling like the last 10 years for Food Forward were a dress rehearsal for the pandemic,” says CEO Rick Nahmias. “[Now], we’ve got kind of an internal feeling of growing into the suit of clothes that we needed to put on for the pandemic.”

‘Nimble and Reactive’

Food Forward focuses on recovering fresh produce, the bulk of which it collects from a wholesale recovery program. After collection, the organization stores the fruits and vegetables at its refrigerated Produce Pit Stop in southeastern L.A. before transporting it to hunger relief programs that distribute the food to low access communities. It has worked with more than 350 direct partners to coordinate food donations to 12 California counties, six other states, and two Tribal nations.

The needs in food-insecure communities intensified in lockstep with the early days of pandemic, fueled by rising unemployment and supply chain disruptions. In 2020, 15 percent of households were food insecure, up from 11 percent before the pandemic. That put pressure on food recovery organizations like Food Forward to act quickly. Nahmias believes that being “nimble and reactive” was already inherent to their ability to quickly move perishable food that is neither frozen nor shelf-stable.

“We understood workflows well enough, we understood efficiencies, we understood the network and how food flows through the L.A. area, the contiguous county, and the region,” Nahmias says. “We saw we were at a point of really being able to make an impact that, if we didn’t step up to, I don’t know that we really could have legitimized staying around afterwards.”

That knowledge proved crucial. Christine Tran, executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, remembers constant mismatches between the food consumers could buy and the traditional routes of food supply. Growers, restaurants, and other food suppliers ended up with surpluses that were no longer wanted at their original destinations.

“One thing to think about when we consider food production is there are primary uses, secondary uses, and beyond,” Tran says. “When we think about food, the process from point A to point B doesn’t always happen in the way we anticipate.” Organizations like Food Forward turn these situations into opportunities to redirect food toward people who need it, she says.

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