What's Your Weekend: Mary Baldwin of Food Forward

Image courtesy Mary Baldwin (at right).

If you don't know who Mary Baldwin is, that means she's doing her job correctly. The former GOOD staffer currently heads up the Farmers Market Recovery Program for Food Forward, an L.A.-based nonprofit that seeks to reconnect our city with the true foods we need to survive. As the Recovery manager, Baldwin's job is simple: work with the vendors, farmers and wholesalers at some of the city's most popular weekly markets to procure pounds and pounds of fresh produce for the poor. Using volunteers, networking and her own determination, Baldwin is helping to transform the pantries of some of Los Angeles' most desperate social service agencies, while maintaining positive relationships with the farmers markets that the city has come to rely on.

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Between gleaning boxes of unused produce and helping to start up at yet another market, Baldwin discussed her personal drive, and what got her into the market scene in the first place. She also dishes on the new Guisados in Echo Park and proclaims her love for tamale Thursdays at 1642 in Silver Lake. All in a day's work for Baldwin.

KCET: How did you get started in the L.A. farmer's market scene? 

Mary Baldwin: I had a suspicion I would work directly with food at some point. I grew up in a food-centric family in Northern California. My father is a chef, my mother could grow a watermelon in the Arctic. We had a ½-acre sized urban garden, and two Gravenstein apple trees that I could climb from my window. I grew up growing, picking, cooking, and eating great food.

Up until last May I was working in marketing and branding. I was working mostly with natural food brands, but I realized I was talking about what I wanted to be doing instead of doing it, so I left. The first thing I did was start volunteering at places that I thought were doing interesting things. I volunteered at gardens which led to getting work at farmers markets, a CSA, and client gardens -- pretty much anything food related. Eventually, I was lucky enough to get a job at Food Forward.

KCET: What are the different arms of Food Forward, and how do they all operate?

Baldwin: Our mission is to fight hunger and build community through harvesting food. To date we've recovered 1.3MM lbs of produce from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. We do this through four arms: Farmers market recovery, backyard harvesting, wholesale donations and our Can It! academy, where anyone can learn how to can, cure, freeze, and ferment their way to great, quality food.

Often, unsold produce from the farmers market goes into the compost when the market ends. The market recovery program ensures that otherwise wasted produce will go to local soup kitchens and food pantries within 7 miles of the market, consumed within 3 days. Currently, we serve both days of the Santa Monica market, as well as Hollywood, Studio City, and now Mar Vista.

KCET: What has the reception been like from the growers that you have approached? And what about the shelters and social centers you're donating to?

Baldwin: Incredible! The Farmers have been generous and easy to work with, and they know that our work is going to help people directly in the local communities. On the program launch day in Santa Monica we expected 300 lbs, and actually gleaned 1,300! Since the launch in August we've collected over 70,000 lbs from 177 farmers, and donated to 22 local agencies, and we're very thankful to everyone involved.

The agencies we donate to are excited to receive fresh, high quality produce that goes beyond what they can get from the food bank; things like Brussels sprouts, beets and mushrooms. Often, agencies want to connect with local farmers but lack the relationships and logistical capacity to sustain their own program. We're able to manage all of that, and stock their pantry weekly with produce that would cost about $40 per person at a supermarket.

And, since we're a volunteer organization, we're always looking for more folks to help out. We post events at the start of each month, so keep checking back for more opportunities!

KCET: When you're not coordinating food donations and giving people access to basic foods, where do you like to eat and drink around town?

Baldwin: I could live off of the new Guisados in Echo Park, Baco Mercat downtown, or Katsu-ya Sushi in Studio City. For drinks, I'm partial to Seven Grand or any place that has a rooftop bar. Or 1642 in Silver Lake, if only because Thursdays are tamale night.

KCET: So what are your plans for the weekend?
Baldwin: It's going to be a pretty quiet weekend actually. Friday I'm checking out the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater with my boyfriend. Saturday morning I'll be sharpening my skills at the UC Master Gardeners Program and will head downtown for uni at Hama Sushi and Goldrush at Seven Grand. Sunday I'm getting up early for a bike ride in Griffith park, and then I'll head to the Mar Vista Farmers Market for collection #2 with the Glean Team!

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About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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