Forgotten Harvest may be best known for the striking cornucopia logo that appears on the food bank's trucks. But the organization's work is more interesting: Formed in 1990 to battle both hunger and waste, the group collects surplus food from all over metro Detroit, including grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and farmers and wholesale food distributors. Instead of being carted to a landfill, this food is delivered free of charge to emergency food providers in the area. We caught up with their communications director, Monica Luoma, for a quick chat.
Metro Times: Forgotten Harvest is a familiar name in Detroit. I know that you are involved in feeding the needy, but I'd like to know what that involves. How does it all happen?
Monica Luoma: Forgotten Harvest is metro Detroit's only mobile food rescue organization. What that means is we go out five or six days a week and we rescue perishable foods. That's our focus. The USDA reports that one-quarter of the food that's produced in this country is wasted. That equates to 96 billion with a "b" pounds of food. We have people in our own community who can't put food on their table for their children. So there is some disconnect there. It's just a question of finding the mechanism to get that food onto the tables of the people who need it. It's not necessarily homeless people we're talking about. These are people who are one or two paychecks away form becoming homeless. These are people who are putting in 40 hours a week at a pay scale that's not allowing them to supply basic needs to their families. These are senior citizens who are on fixed incomes, who have to make a decision between paying the heat bill or buying a bag of groceries. We service 135 emergency food providers in metro Detroit. Our region is the tri-county area. That's where we rescue food. That's where we deliver food. Our trucks are our mobile mechanism. We have scheduled routes with over 375 food donors. We rescue the food in the morning and that afternoon the food is delivered to the agencies. We don't warehouse it. It is perishable. On the truck. Off the truck. Last year we rescued over 8 million pounds of food.
MT: How do particular types of food become available to you?
Luoma: Let me give you the banana example. At 8 o'clock in the morning you go to the banana table at Kroger's. There is a beautiful array of yellow bananas in bunches of seven or eight. You only need five, so you find the perfect bunch: perfect length, perfect color. What do you do? Take the five and leave two on the table. The next customer comes over a senior citizen, living alone. She only needs two. She sees the two that you just left. There must be something wrong with them, so she picks up a bunch of six and leaves four. It happens all the time. At the end of the day the produce manager has a table full of ones and twos. He knows that he's not going to be able to sell them, and he boxes them up for Forgotten Harvest. Milk is another example. When you buy milk, do you take the milk from the front that has the short date or do you reach in the back for a later expiration date?
MT: So I guess you could say that I'm helping Forgotten Harvest.
Luoma: Meat is another example. When meat is getting close to the expiration date, it is taken off the shelves and put in the deep freeze where it has a three to six month shelf life. We pick it up and get it to the agencies where it is used, rather than getting dumped. Also, all of our agencies are trained and certified in safe food handling.
MT: Other than the obvious help to the community that the donors provide, what incentives exist to encourage them to donate food?
Luoma: There are advantages to being a food donor. Obviously there is a standard tax write-off for donating surplus food that they have paid for. Additionally there is a Congressional Act in place that allows them to deduct 50 percent of the difference between the cost and the retail price of the item. They are also saving on Dumpster costs and landfill costs. It's a win-win situation. The donors' customers appreciate knowing that surplus food is going to good use, that stores are being prudent with their resources, acting responsibly. Conversely, we have had calls from people who want to notify us that stores are throwing away good food. Customers get irate about that. They don't want to see people go hungry.
I should also mention the Good Samaritan Act. The first objection that people raise when we approach them for a donation is, "No, no, no. I can't do it. There's too much liability." There's an act that Bill Clinton signed into law that precludes any food donor who donates food in good faith, from any civil or criminal liability. Our drivers are trained and they have food thermometers. They know what to look for and help us avoid problems.
Forgotten Harvest is located at 21455 Melrose Ave., Ste. 9, Southfield. For more information, call 248-350-3663 or e-mail [email protected]. Their Comedy Night fund-raiser at Music Hall is May 5, with food-oriented funnyman John Pinette.
Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]