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Eating with Dignity: A Conversation with Food Forward

Lemon tree | collectmoments/Creative Commons
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This article has been edited for context and re-published from UC Food Observer, your daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more, curated by the University of California as part of its UC Global Food Initiative

"Everyone eats and everyone should eat with dignity. Food Forward helps that happen...We ALL have something to share – money, time, clothing, etc. – at Food Forward our currency is food. We’d like to reframe how people see abundance in their own lives – and what they can do with it to help others." - Rick Nahmias, founder, Food Forward

Learn more about the work of Food Forward on "LA Foodways" The Central Wholesale Produce Market. Watch now.

Food Forward is a Southern California nonprofit organization that “rescues” fresh local produce. The organization’s mission is to “harvest food, fight hunger and build community.” The volunteer-driven organization is dedicated to food justice and eliminating hunger in communities. Food Forward organizes gleaning activities — called “picks” or “harvests” — on private properties (including homes and commercial farms), in public spaces and at farmers and wholesale markets to “recover” produce. What they collect is donated to “direct-service agencies” that feed the hungry.

The UC Food Observer caught up with Food Forward’s founder and executive director, Rick Nahmias, and Jim Mangis, who served as the branch manager for the organization’s operation in Ventura County prior to his sudden death in 2016 at the age of 62. 

Rick Nahmias is an award-winning professional photographer, well-known for his work documenting diversity and marginalized communities. He has published two books, including The Migrant Project. He also is a professionally trained cook and an accomplished speaker.

Jim Mangis’ work focused on community building, conserving resources and feeding the hungry. He started building youth conservation corps in the 1970s. He worked in community recycling for many years in Central California. He also worked with food banks in Tulare and Ventura County (FoodShare). He was the owner of Good Tilth Organic Nursery.

Learning more about fresh food | Courtesy of Food Forward and Rick Nahmias
Learning more about fresh food | Courtesy of Food Forward and Rick Nahmias

Q: Rick, what inspired you to found Food Forward?

A: The inspiration was multipronged. I was inspired by my work around “The Migrant Project," which enabled me to document the lives of agricultural workers in California. I was stunned to learn that the people who feed us are often unable to afford to feed themselves. It’s a cruel irony. I was also inspired by the 2008 election to engage more. And I was also angered by that election, which resulted in me having my marriage nullified (by California’s Proposition 8).

I was living in Valley Glen, in the San Fernando Valley, an area that formerly had many walnut and orange groves. I’d be out walking with my dog and see fruit on the ground, over and over. And I just thought … "there’s no need for this."

I didn’t have an agenda to create a nonprofit. I was lucky enough to have a handful of fun friends who also believed in this … and we began harvesting trees. These people were reliable, professional, fun to be with, and we built a small family around our collective work. It’s grown exponentially. It was the right idea and the right time. People were and are ready to give back. After the economy went south, people have been very much wanting to give back.

Q: Rick, what are your aspirations for Food Forward?

A: My aspirations for the organization are similar to those I started out with. I want to create a holistic organization around food justice that has entry points for any one at any age in any situation. You can be a farmer, a farm worker, an academic, a secretary … anyone who is interested in how we eat, how we can eat better and how we can help others eat better. I like that we have a program, activity or event that anyone could access. There is an amazing diversity among the people doing the work and joining in the community.

On the flip side, one of things I’m proudest of is the diversity of the agencies that receive what we harvest. Between direct and indirect relationships, we have more than 300 agencies distributing the food we glean across the span of six counties. The range of people who access what we glean is amazing … from low-income LGBT communities to Special Olympics participants to farm workers in Piru.

Again, this has been the right time, right place and the right population we’re working with. We’ve now had 10,000 volunteers come through our programs … some are one-time volunteers, but many return to help again and again. I go back to our organization’s tagline: “Harvest Food … Fight Hunger … Build Community.” We are a solutions-based nonprofit. One that is based on the concept of sharing and giving what we have. We ALL have something to share – money, time, clothing, etc. — at Food Forward our currency is food. We’d like to reframe how people see abundance in their own lives — and what they can do with it to help others.

Q: Rick, what one change would you make in the food system if you were given the power?

A: It would be to instill a sense of value and respect for the food we eat in every person on this planet. We would all become intentional eaters.

Teen Food Forward volunteers | Courtesy of Food Forward and Rick Nahmias
Teen Food Forward volunteers | Courtesy of Food Forward and Rick Nahmias

Q: Where do you find volunteers?

A: We get a really wide spectrum of volunteers. A lot of nonprofits depend on retired people. At Food Forward we also get a lot of young volunteers. We get families with little kids all the way up to retired people. Girl Scouts, school groups, college students … a wide range of people. We always need more volunteers, and it is really easy to participate. Just go to our website and sign up for the events that interest you and fit your schedule. And then enjoy your first Food Forward harvest.

Our website is our operational hub. We have developed interactive and effective ways of communicating and recruiting volunteers online. So maybe someone will read this blog post, click on the link and look at our calendar of events. You complete a liability waiver and application and then you’re registered. You receive emails, reminders, event information and even a thank you via our website.

A typical pick is about two-thirds new volunteers, one-third returning volunteers. We have episodic volunteers, but many of those turn into longer-term volunteers. Families fit in so well at Food Forward activities. It’s not always easy to find social action activities that the whole family can do together. The little ones clean up branches or fruit as it goes into boxes. There are all sorts of things children can do in a pick.

Q: Jim, what happens with the food you’ve recovered post-gleaning?

A: Post-gleaning in Ventura and Santa Barbara County … well the entire pick is all about connecting with property owners and volunteers and immediately connecting with emergency food network. We don’t need coolers or a warehouse. All of what we harvest goes to where it’s needed, which is often the nearest pantry. So, for example, if we harvest in Moorpark, we might take the harvest directly to Catholic Charities. We don’t give an agency more than they think they can distribute. We have a whole network of receiving agencies, and of course, we work closely with Food Share and  Food Bank Santa Barbara County.

Top Image: Lemon tree | collectmoments/Creative Commons

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