Food recovery is an important component of reducing food waste in the United States, since the majority of food that ends up in landfills is fit for human consumption. According to Feeding America, up to 72% of food distributed by food banks is donated or recovered food. ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent shows that food recovery solutions can recover 1.8B meals a year, create an annual economic value of $2.4B to society, and create 4,000 jobs over the next decade.
While operating at a large scale and managing perishable fruits and vegetables is no easy task for food recovery organizations, doing so provides great benefits to the community and local economy. ReFED spoke with Food Forward’s Founder and Executive Director Rick Nahmais, a Southern California innovator dedicated to rescuing hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh produce each year, to learn more about this impressive and highly impactful organization.
ReFED: What does your organization do and who do you serve?
RN: Food Forward staff and volunteers currently recover upwards of 400,000 pounds of surplus produce each week from residential fruit trees, farmers markets, and the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market and its surrounding district. 100% of these fresh fruits and vegetables are donated free of charge, directly and indirectly, to over 1,800 hunger relief agencies across eight counties in Southern California.
ReFED: How does your innovation reduce food waste in the U.S.?
RN: Food Forward sees its work as a two-sided coin that efficiently diverts perfectly edible food to people, rather than dumping it in landfills. During our first year, we exclusively harvested from backyards and orchards, managing to recover over 100,000 pounds of fruit. Currently, through all three of our programs combined, we can rescue upwards of 100,000 pounds per day. Though in the beginning there were few verifiable measures of our environmental impact, we now know from winning three consecutive Food Recovery Challenge Awards from the Environmental Protection Agency that we are offsetting 7,580 metric tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of taking 1,600 cars off the road each year.
ReFED: What are some of the major obstacles you’ve faced as Food Forward continues to grow? Any lessons learned from these experiences?
RN: From our very first year to now, our single biggest problem has been one of capacity: there is far more surplus produce being offered to us than we can rescue, and far more need than we can feed. Our food rescue capacity continues to grow exponentially but there are still weeks when bumper crops or other market circumstances leave us with hundreds of thousands of pounds of wholesale produce we cannot feasibly recover or place with an agency.
In light of the near-constant opportunities, a key lesson has been to force ourselves to grow our programs in a measured and responsible way instead of simply hiring more staff and acquiring more resources at a sudden surge of available produce. We have come to deeply value high-productivity partnerships that allow us to share work expertise and risk when we launch new models and geographies for our programs.
ReFED: What would you like impact investors and other funders to know about food waste organizations like yours?
RN: Food Forward’s organizational cost to recover food averages just $.09 per pound – about one third of the cost of most major food banks. That said, many of the grants available for food recovery come with significant restrictions or without a holistic understanding of all that goes into the work we do. For it to be most effective, funding should be geared towards multi-year general operating support.
Unrestricted, multi-year funding provides proven organizations like Food Forward the opportunity to spend less time fundraising, be more strategic, operate sustainably, and pay for the true cost of our work. Recently, we have also found several funders in our field prioritizing seed or start-up funding with only a few of them offering long-term, sustainable dollars. While we love the opportunity to partake in innovative grant programs, once these ideas are proven, funders need to understand we will need continued support to maintain the programs and work they have helped launch.
ReFED: For your organization to continue growing and making an impact, what major milestones would you like to see happen across the food waste ecosystem?
RN: Although the government has implemented a United States Food Loss & Waste 2030 Reduction Goal, it would be gratifying to see entities like the EPA and USDA start funding high-volume food recovery in a substantial way. The government has the ability to quickly and significantly move the needle on this issue. It would also be great to see local governments and municipalities approach food waste with the same gusto they tackled recycling with in the 90s.
ReFED: What advice do you have for future innovators hoping to make an impact in this space?
RN: First and foremost, innovators should look for what is NOT being done before striking out in the food recovery field. There is a fair amount of redundancy in the food recovery space right now – although there are still holes to fill. It’s a huge lift to get a successful organization off the ground, so it’s beneficial to do research to learn what already exists and where there may be potential for collaboration, rather than diving in as a solo player.
ReFED: What is the vision for your organization for the next 1, 5, and 20 years?
RN: We are currently working diligently towards opening a Produce Depot in the coming months. This will allow us to double the amount of produce we recover and donate annually to upwards of 40 million pounds by mid-2020 to share across SoCal and beyond. Initiated by an anchor grant from CalRecycle, we are currently securing the physical site, designing workflows, and raising the substantial matching funds needed.
While our internal operations are hugely focused on the Depot project, we are also growing our public-facing initiatives. We have had the opportunity to create fun and highly efficient direct produce distributions in underserved neighborhoods in collaboration with community partners. This innovative distribution model allows us to do what we do best: procure massive amounts of fresh produce and harness the passion and skill of our volunteer corps, while relying on our partners for public outreach and site coordination.
A major strategic planning process is now underway, and, in the coming years, we will continue to scale our work. Food Forward will grow deeper roots in the communities we serve, strengthen our programs’ efficiencies, and reach new geographies in the Western and Southwestern U.S. with rescued fruits and vegetables – serving more food insecure individuals than ever before.
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