Smart farmers market shoppers know it's best to get there bright and early. So why is Leah Boyer hanging around the Saturday Torrance market at closing time? It's because she's got hungry people to feed.
Boyer is the farmers market recovery program manager for Food Forward, a Southern California nonprofit organization that gathers free food from backyards, farmers markets, even the produce terminals, and distributes it to more than 200 charitable groups across a five-county region. The organization says it helps feed 100,000 people a month.
Boyer shows up at Torrance around 11 in the morning, well past farmers market prime time. She and her crew — "glean team" leader Claire Moss and young volunteers Sonari Chidi and Zachery McGraw — walk the market distributing empty Food Forward cardboard boxes to various farmers.
Then at 1 p.m., after the horn blows ending the market, they make another circuit, picking up the boxes, filled with produce the farmers didn't sell that day. Those boxes are weighed and recorded, and then volunteers from various local charities drive by to pick them up.
The take from this Saturday market — about 250 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables — goes to Navegando Con Jesus Covenant Church and Lydia's House food pantry, both in Torrance.
Though Food Forward has only been around for about six years, and has only been collecting at farmers markets for three, it says it has already collected and distributed 8.6 million pounds of fresh produce. The farmers market program alone has accounted for 650,000 pounds.
The nonprofit is the brainchild of Rick Nahmias, who started it almost on an impulse.
"I got tired of seeing a huge amount of food waste and seeing all kinds of hungry people in my community," he says. "So I decided to start harvesting a friend's fruit trees. There was one tangerine and one navel orange, and between them we got 800 pounds, which we donated to a local food pantry.
"Right then I saw the potential of all these unharvested backyard trees and a community base that was really interested in engaging around food security issues.
"And here was a way that we could take Southern California's agricultural food history and turn it into something really positive from the angle of sharing abundance."
Once the backyard gleaning was up and running, he expanded the program to include farmers markets.
The group, made up of roughly 500 to 600 volunteers, works with more than 170 farmers at an average of 15 markets through the week. The harvest ranges from around 250 pounds — as at the Torrance Saturday market — to upwards of 1,000 pounds at the Sunday Hollywood market. (Saturday markets are always slower for Food Forward since most vendors also work Sundays, and therefore tend to hold on to unsold produce an extra day rather than donating it.)
The record farmers market haul, Boyer says, was the Hollywood market on Oscars Sunday. "I guess nobody went to the market that day," she says with a laugh.
But the farmers market and backyard harvests, important as they are, pale next to what the group collects from the downtown produce market. Boyer says that averages 120,000 pounds a week or more.
Nahmias says the wholesale market has "exponentially increased the number of clients that receive food. This was one of those giant opportunities that no one was taking seriously. It's very similar to the farmers markets, but think of it on steroids."
Food Forward also produces its own line of jams from gleaned fruit. "Let's face it, while we may salivate over Meyer lemons, a normal homeless shelter doesn't have much use for them," Nahmias says. "Why not take them and turn them into something that can earn some money and tell our story?"
The group makes Meyer lemon rosemary jelly, fig with balsamic and thyme jam, and grand champion nectarine jam, which are available on their website. It also sponsors a food preservation course it calls a "canning academy," which provides a lot of the manpower for making the jams.
The fresh food makes a tremendous difference to food pantries, says Warren Hughes, director of Lydia's House, one of two groups that split the Saturday Torrance haul. While donated staples are welcome, farmers market fruits and vegetables are special.
"This means everything for my clients," he says, estimating that between 75 and 80 families depend on Lydia's House every week.
"I think there's a misconception that people who come to food banks are people who don't want to work and are looking for a handout. Most of the people we're seeing have jobs and work hard but earn below the poverty line and don't make enough money to feed their family. Other people had good jobs, lost them, now they're one step away from being homeless.
"When someone provides something to them that's of quality, they're very thankful and they're happy that someone cares enough to do what Food Forward is doing."
Food Forward will be holding its annual "Spring Melt" fundraiser April 25 from 7 to 10 p.m at TasteMade in Santa Monica. Dinner will be by Akasha and Clementine restaurants, beers from Smog City Brewing, wines from Parducci, Roxana Jullapat will be making dessert and Matthew Biancaniello will be pouring drinks. Tickets are $125.