Good Food

Nonprofit started from the back of a woman’s Jeep is branching out to find ways to feed metro Detroit’s hungry

Dawn hasn’t broken yet on a chilly April day, but Forgotten Harvest is already buzzing with activity.

Truck driver Major Clora, armed with a cup of coffee and clad in a black Forgotten Harvest jacket and tan work boots, prepares to embark on his route that will take him from the tony suburbs of Birmingham and Rochester, where he will collect food from grocery stores and restaurants, to the north side of Detroit, where he will deliver the day’s haul to New Bethel — the church once headed by Aretha Franklin’s father — and the Salvation Army.

Everything Clora picks up today will be delivered today. Forgotten Harvest accepts everything “except alcohol,” he says.

Well, not everything. “We’re food rescuers, not garbage collectors,” he says.

He tells one store worker he’s not taking what they’ve set out: a carton of overripe bananas well on the way to turning black.

Throughout the morning, he picks up pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables, boxes of poultry and meat, and a bonanza of grains and baked goods — food that would otherwise end up in the trash. A store cannot keep a product past its “sell by” date, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfit for consumption. It’s viable for a few more days.

First drop is New Bethel, where he’ll see scores of people lined up waiting to pick up food.

At the Salvation Army, envoy Esther Lewis says the food is “very much needed” by the families and individuals served by its food pantry.

Once the last carton is unpacked, Clora climbs into his truck and says, “that’s a wrap.”


‘Far from done’

But the job is “far from done,” Forgotten Harvest’s slogan this year.

Nearly 672,000 people face hunger and poverty in metro Detroit, CEO Kirk Mayes says. “Every year, 70 billion pounds of food is wasted in our country. We are firm in our resolve and conviction that we will see the day that no child, no family, no senior in metro Detroit will have to face the indignity of hunger or lack of food.”

Since its founding 25 years ago, Forgotten Harvest has become one of the nation’s largest food rescue operations, picking up about 49 million pounds a year from 800 food donors last year.

It all started from the back of Nancy Fishman’s Jeep. In her book, Eight Lessons I Learned in the Corners of the Field, she recounts her struggles. As she waited to apply for food assistance one day, she looked at her neighbors and swore to return to help them.

More than a decade later, she read a newspaper article about a New Jersey woman collecting leftover food and delivering it to soup kitchens. She thought, “I can do that!”

She and her husband, Ronnie, would go from caterers to country clubs collecting food, packing their Jeep Cherokee to the brim.

A couple read about Fishman’s work and wanted to provide a refrigerated van. That helped jump-start Forgotten Harvest, which was incorporated in 1990. Their mission was simple: rescue food that would otherwise be thrown away and deliver it to soup kitchens and shelters.


New approaches

As the Great Recession hit, demand for assistance went up while donations shrank. According to Giving USA 2013, individual giving peaked in 2005, staying relatively level before dropping in 2008. It’s back on the upswing, but not to pre-recession levels.

While food makes up a huge part of Forgotten Harvest’s support and revenue ($82 million in 2013-14), they’ve had to branch out.

Chris Nemeth, president of Hopeful Harvest, the for-profit social enterprise owned by Forgotten Harvest, says that along with relying on public and local companies’ generosity, they’re adding initiatives to raise revenue, including a line of branded products.

They’re partnering up with food manufacturers and stores such as Kroger and Busch’s. Products will be co-branded with the manufacturer or just carry the Forgotten Harvest label.

The first product is a line of salad dressings done in partnership with Garden Fresh. About 7.5 percent of the profits will go to Forgotten Harvest. The goal is to have 45-60 distinct products by year’s end.

They’ve also taken on small food entrepreneurs as clients. Forgotten Harvest built a 3,000-square-foot processing center, including a commercial kitchen. There’s also room for cold and dry storage.

Hopeful Harvest works with clients including Slow Jams, Beau Bien Fine Foods, and Holy Cannoli’s. Clients’ needs range from simply needing storage to outsourcing the whole process.

Scale is one of a small entrepreneurs’ biggest challenges — exactly the problem that McClary Bros. Drinking Vinegars founder Jess McClary was facing.

Working out of a shared kitchen in Ferndale, she and two staffers were processing vegetables by hand.

“From the fall of 2013 to February or March of 2014, we had processed 14,000 pounds of just beets and carrots alone,” she says. At best, they produced 40 cases of vinegars a week.

Now, as of July 2014, Hopeful Harvest does every step of McClary Bros.’ process. They can easily do 200 to 300 cases a month and distribute to 15 states.

“I was producing so much less and I had so much less revenue,” McClary says. “[Hopeful Harvest has] completely changed the way my business ran.”