Food, like the mind, is a terrible thing to waste, especially when people in the United States throw out tons and tons of food every year while an increasing, record-breaking number of people go on food stamps. In Los Angeles County, California, where up to 70 percent of homeowners in the county have at least one fruit tree on their property, Food Forward does what Robin Hood may have done if his beat were fruit instead of riches: It organizes and takes surplus fruit from people’s backyards and distributes them to the people who need them the most.
Meg Glasser, Food Forward’s first employee and current Managing Director, joined the volunteer-powered, nonprofit organization in January 2011, after having worked as the West Coast regional manager for Urban Farming and as a private consultant installing vegetable gardens at schools, shelters, and for families around Los Angeles. “My interest is in food justice, access to foods, and education,” says Glasser. “Food Forward is just a different approach to what I believe in.”
A combination of statistics inspired—and still inspires—Glasser’s work every day: One in 10 families and 25 percent of children in Los Angeles county face food insecurity—in 2009, over 1.7 million L.A. County residents suffered from hunger, more than any other county in the United States. And yet, 40 percent of all food produced in the United States end up in the dumpster. In addition to those statistics, Glasser adds that one Valencia orange tree can produce up to 800 pounds of fruit. “There’s no sense in letting all that go to waste,” she says.
The fruit and vegetables Food Forward harvests from people’s backyards include mostly citrus fruits, but they have also harvested tomatoes, stone fruit, figs and sapotes. The harvested goods then get taken to large food banks, such as Meet Each Need with Dignity (MEND), and SOVA Community Food and Resource Program. Food Forward also works with Downtown Women’s Center, a day center and residence for homeless women, and Project Chicken Soup, a non-profit that delivers free, nutritious meals to Angelenos with serious illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. The food also carries a significance: “It’s local, it’s often organic, and it’s harvested by folks in our community, so this work is building meaningful connections to our food source, and that makes a difference,” explains Glasser.
Furthermore, as people in low-income neighborhoods in L.A. (and in other metropolises) tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, the fruits and vegetables may help lower those numbers, or at the least, get people essential vitamins and nutrients they might be missing.
And success has been indeed bountiful. By the beginning of August 2012, Food Forward will have harvested 1 million pounds of fruit and will have provided 4 million servings, but the goal is to cover more ground with more volunteers.
“We’re reaching just about one percent of the trees in L.A. County,” says Glasser. The organization has opened up a second branch in Ventura County, which is more rural than LA County and will require more volunteers. Additionally, it recently launched its Farmers Market Recovery program, which gleans excess unsold produce from farmers. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Glasser. “There’s so much food out there that goes to waste, and there’s still plenty of need for our work.”