The following is a conversation between Rick Nahmias, Founder and CEO of Food Forward, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Food Forward fights hunger and prevents food waste by rescuing fresh surplus produce, connecting this abundance with people experiencing food insecurity, and inspiring others to do the same. And here to tell us how they go about this work and the difference that it is making is Rick Nahmias, the Founder and CEO of Food Forward.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Rick!
Rick: Thanks so much for having me, Denver.
“This idea of sharing abundance, stuff that we all have in our lives that we can gift to people without any need for compensation or anything in return.”
Denver: So, it’s 2009, you’re a photographer; we’re in the middle of The Great Recession, and that is when Food Forward starts. What in the world happened, and what confluence of events got you launching a nonprofit organization back then?
Rick: It’s so funny you say “The Great Recession.” Doesn’t that sound quaint compared to what we’re coming out of?
Denver: “The good old days.”
Rick: “The good old days,” right. When it was just financial devastation, right?
Rick: I had been quite involved with two political campaigns that summer and fall, one was the Obama Campaign, and the other was a campaign no one won that had to do with marriage equality.
And I had this kind of bizarre moment of whiplash where in one case, my candidate won, and the other case, my marriage was nullified by my fellow Californians. And I just was stunned. I couldn’t believe that we had lost the right to marriage. And again, me and dozens of friends, who had also gotten married, suddenly found ourselves at this very odd crossroads.
And instead of getting angry, I needed to turn the other cheek. And as a result, my background and my work in photography was often centered around food, sustainable agriculture, farm worker rights and whatnot, and so I had a background in understanding the human cost of feeding people.
But as I found myself at that point, I was starting to see the urban equation. We were seeing people showing up at food pantries, who had never been there before– people who had lost their jobs, people who had lost their homes. At the same time, I had an aging rescue dog named Scout. And as her walks got slower around the neighborhood, I became more aware of my immediate surroundings, which were decommissioned citrus orchards from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s in LA.
And these people have beautiful, large adult trees in their yards, but they take maybe 10, 15 pieces of fruit and the rest would go to the squirrels and the rats or the trash. And I’m like, “Well, wait a minute. Couldn’t that fresh produce make its way to people in need at these food pantries?” So, I put an ad on Craigslist, another quaint reference back to when… and ended up harvesting a friend’s backyard. And over three weeks, me and a couple of volunteers basically recovered about 800 pounds of citrus off two trees.
And it was a big aha moment, both in this idea of sharing abundance, stuff that we all have in our lives that we can gift to people without any need for compensation or anything in return.
But it was also this environmental feeling of connecting dots, this history of Los Angeles that had somewhat gone dormant, but which many people… over a million by the California Department of Ag Statistics… had in their own backyard, which was a mature fruit tree. And how do we get healthy produce into the hands of people who are facing food insecurity?
And so, there was some great kind of Hail Mary passes thrown to us from the volunteers that wanted to throw in; there were funders that wanted to throw in, and within a couple of years, we were off and running. And it was the right idea at the right time, it seems. And the team that we built both from volunteers, homeowners, board members, and staff that came on early to do this grassroots startup was really humbling.
And ever since then, we went from about 100,000 pounds of backyard produce, which was harvested in the first year, which was no small feat, to now on an average day, with all of our programs… the main one being wholesale recovery… we recover and distribute about 250,000 pounds of produce a day.
Denver: Oh, my goodness! That is growth! And that is a great founding story. And if I may, a tip of the hat to your rescue dog for slowing you down. And it is amazing– and I think it’s happened to some of us during the pandemic, Rick– you do slow down a little bit, and you observe things you never had time to observe before.
And I think I’ve even noticed around my neighborhood, I’ve always been in a hurry. And we don’t see much when we are hurrying, and it wasn’t until your dog slowed down a little bit, that all of a sudden, all the things fell into…
Rick: I totally agree. And dogs do many amazing things for us. Scout did a lot for me, and that was her greatest gift, in our last years, was helping start this organization.
But what’s crazy, too, is a lot of the people don’t realize that Southern California is the gateway for more fresh produce than any other place on the continent, and so we have over 200 weekly farmers markets. That became our second source of surplus produce.
And that’s thriving now with over 15 markets being gleaned by volunteers every week. The big one hit us on the head very early, though, and it took us a few years to figure out the logistics of it, and that is the Wholesale Recovery Program. The entire, really, nation’s system of moving wholesale produce from the Central Valley up from Mexico, neighboring counties like Ventura, all of it really comes to Los Angeles before it’s really pushed out to the rest of the country.
And so, we started having our name rise in Google Analytics, and people who are looking for food rescue would call us and say, “We’ve got a container of mangoes. Do you want it?” And to me, a container of mangoes is some Tupperware, right? No, it actually is a 53-foot truckload of mangoes, which is about between 40,000 and 48,000 pounds.
So, we soon had a tiger by the tail when we realized that there was no one else doing this professionally. And I say “professionally” because we’ve always shown up to the space with both innovation, but also that idea that we need to meet these produce donors where they’re at.
The Wholesale Program starts operations at about 3:00 AM, and one of our open secrets is that we coincide hours with the wholesale market, which is important because if you show up at 10:00 in the morning, and they’re closing shop or they are sweeping up their dock, they don’t want to talk to you. But if you’re there at 3:00 in the morning and they’ve got pallets of produce that didn’t get bought by the local grocery chain because they had too much of it, suddenly, there’s an opportunity there.
We’ve also spent a lot of time cultivating staff who have spent years in that field. Oddly, most of our admin staff, our development, our operations, myself, do not have food recovery in their background. It’s a very, very narrow niche to come from, but our wholesale team, I’ll come with 10, 20, 30 years in the produce space, so they know how to inspect, move, split pallets, and I call them, “fruit ninjas.” When you see them with a forklift or pallet jack, they’re incredible.
And so, they came over to the nonprofit side, many of them from very personal stories of either experiencing food insecurity themselves or coming from faith-based backgrounds, where they wanted to give back. Also, having worked in produce, they see the astronomical, shameful waste that our society kicks off, and they all wanted to do something different.
And so, I get really the incredible honor of being surrounded by these folks, whether I’m at our produce warehouse that we call the Pit Stop, or I’m here at the fruit cave in North Hollywood where our offices are. Watching people bring different passions that get woven together into what Food Forward is today, which is: we’re just about to hit 250 million pounds of produce recovered and distributed; we do that for an incredible economical cost of about 6 cents a pound. So, for example, last year, our budget was around $4 million, and for that, we kicked off close to $120 million in social impact, which is the value of the food that we recovered. So, it’s a huge win on many levels. There’s also massive environmental impact that we make by not putting that food into a landfill.
Denver: For sure.
Rick: And I think another big piece is the health equity we are bringing, with millions of pounds of produce to food-insecure communities that often would face, at best, a little bit of produce and a whole lot of carbs and sugar in their diet if they were dependent on food banks. So, we are a produce, plant-based-only operation, and we plan on staying that way.
And what we’re bringing is an opportunity for both the environment to get better, but also for people who are in underserved communities to see their health improve as well.
Denver: A very important lens, no doubt about it. I know you have become more and more focused on that all the time.
Let me pick up on a couple of things you said. One was food waste. Now, 40% of our food goes to waste. That is an incredible number. Why is that the case? And what can we do about it?
Rick: Well, I think it starts with the individual and the lack of value that people have for food. And I think that’s when people say, “What can I do as an individual?”
The first thing is you start eating with intention. You buy, you order, you prepare what you need for now, maybe with some leftovers, but you don’t buy three racks of ribs just because they’re on sale at Costco. If you don’t have mouths to feed, you really need to be intentional about what you’re buying and how you’re making it. That’s to me, where it starts.
But then there’s also a corporate piece, and there’s this sense that our society looks at food as disposable, as if it was a never-ending supply. That’s not the truth. Especially when you look at the climate degradation that it takes to grow the food. If you start spending time out in the fields and you start seeing what it takes to create a package of what… let’s say Romaine hearts, Romaine lettuce… 90% of that plant remains in the field before it’s packaged. Why? Because we’ve somehow cultivated a taste for Romaine hearts, not Romaine lettuce. And it’s incredible when you think we use that much water, fertilizer, and human labor to then discard 90% of it. To me, it’s shameful.
So, I think there are areas that the government can get involved in, and I’ve been really happy to see the California State Legislature step up with some new laws that have been moving the needle on corporate regulations. Corporations need to own some of this and understand that their customers actually want to see a healthier chain of food system that they’re part of, that includes less waste.
And then there’s the individuals that really have to be buying what they can use and not discarding it. So, there are lots of levels where it can change.
Denver: Yeah. Food insecurity, what do those numbers look like in Los Angeles County, the epicenter of where you’re at? And what was the impact of COVID on food insecurity?
Rick: The lowest numbers I’ve seen recently are 1 in 10 people, and I think that’s a very conservative number. What we saw in COVID was a four to six times spike of that, where we were seeing upwards of 25% to 30%, that’s one quarter or one third of our population in LA County, was food insecure.
I think the biggest number that hits me is that in the 1950s, we were the largest food-producing community in the country. You flash forward 60, 70, 80 years, we are now the largest food-insecure county in the nation. What’s wrong with that picture, right?
So, that’s where I feel like an organization like Food Forward has a mandate for what it does, which is becoming a regional leader around food waste, get inspiring people to do it, but also moving the needle in a way that we’re reaching 12 counties from Fresno down to the San Diego border with our food.
Also, when the surplus allows, we are including about six additional states that border California and the Western U.S. And last year, I’m really proud to say that we began seeing our food land in tribal lands, where COVID really ripped the band-aid off of the states of hunger and food insecurity in tribal communities.
And to have the honor to be able to help feed indigenous Americans, who are facing rough times, is one of the few bright spots that came out of COVID.
We did scale substantially as an organization. We went into COVID having just opened our warehouse less than six months before the pandemic, and we went to move about 25 million pounds a year. Next year, we did 41 million, and last year was 67 million. So, we almost tripled over two years in size.
And now, we are raising the funds and hiring the staff to grow into that new suit of food insecurity that is in front of us. It’s a lot of work, but the passion is there; the innovation is there, and sadly, the need is still there. We’ve seen a little bit of the numbers subside, but we still have a waiting list of agencies that want to take part in our programs that we just have not been able to add to the roster yet, because one…
Denver: As a leader, how do you solidify that kind of growth? Because, that’s tough to go from 25 to 40 to 67, and among other things, you also have to scale the culture because there’s something very special about the old Food Forward, and now you’re saying, “We have to maintain that for the larger organization.”
Rick: You totally hit it, Denver. You totally hit it.
The easy part, actually, is the numbers and the logistics. We had some extraordinary funders step up and allow us to scale. We had a space that was ready with half of it being dormant, that we asked our landlord, “Can we put on some lights and put in a loading dock and make this happen?” and they were like, “Go for it.” They were incredibly generous.
The culture is another piece. I will say that I haven’t spoken to a nonprofit leader in the last two years that hasn’t felt the high seas of what we’ve been through, from a racial uprising, to the anxiety in many levels of staff around the pandemic too, the fraying and in some cases unraveling of organizational culture.
I actually thought ‘21 was going to be the year that we came back from that when in fact it was actually compounded. Why? Because it was the second year with more waves of the pandemic. We had the “great resignation” where a lot of people just said, “Hey, I don’t want to work anymore,” or “I want to do this remotely,” or whatever. And the truth is there are a handful of jobs at Food Forward that can work remotely, but our culture is one where we are a team, and we’re still…
I’m in the office today, thankfully, with mostly development staff, because our big gala is coming up on Saturday, called The Spring Melt. It’s our first one in three years where we’re going to all be together, even at reduced numbers and all outside, but we are pulling that together, and it’s great to see faces and sharing lunches and jokes and whatnot again. And we’ve put the mandate out that by end of April, we’re going to spend half the week together in person. And I think that’s going to make us a healthier organization and a healthier culture.
But I will tell you, the last two-plus years really kicked our butts as far as all the constant churn— every time, the example I used to put out, and I can say this is not the case today, thank God, but up until a couple of months ago, it was like playing a game of whack-a-mole while in a pit of quicksand. Everywhere you turn, there was a new fire to hit and put out, but you had no stability to do it from. We’ve now grown into a $5.5-million budget, which is extraordinary, and we’re hoping this year that the funders show up to help us continue to do what we do.
But, we’re doing it also with an incredible staff, and the new hires we’ve had in the last 12 to 18 months are all really extraordinary. So, I’m grateful for the leveling up we’re doing, but there’s no question, there’s a lot of work, whether it’s strategic planning, logistics, simple workflows that, now it’s at a 40-person operation, having gotten into it at about 20 or 25 people, it’s a lot of leveling up to do.
Denver: Yeah. I think you’re onto something, too, in terms of getting people back together. I’ve talked to a lot of nonprofit organizations about this, and there has been so much burnout that’s been going on, but it seems to me that the burnout has really emanated from social isolation, and people don’t recognize it. They think it’s overwork, and it’s stress and things, and they really hit the bottom when they take a week or two off, and they go to the Caribbean, and they come back and by the Wednesday after they come back, they are exactly where they were again. And we don’t understand or appreciate that it’s that socialization; that’s the thing that really assures our mental health and gets us going.
And people are reluctant… we’re lazy, I’m lazy. You know what I mean? You stop going to work every day; you get comfortable; you only dress from the waist up, but I think when people start to get back again, I think things are going to be much, much healthier, as you say.
I don’t think you can really have a very healthy organization unless you have people in at least half the time for most jobs.
Rick: I would agree, and I think there are definitely people that may have come to a conclusion, “Hey, I need a remote workplace.” And you know what? That’s great for them. “This isn’t the job. And thank you, thank you, for your service. This is not the job for you now.”
Again, so grateful we have not had a single group outbreak of COVID. We had several individuals get COVID during the pandemic, including myself, but thankfully, everybody was safe and recovered.
But what never stopped was our warehouse and the individuals there and their dedication there. And so, I was down there often once or twice a week making sure, obviously, things were going. There was a little castle that we protected, and only people that had to be there were there during the height of lockdown.
But when you saw this team work, with the camaraderie they have, it made you envious of not having that in our North Hollywood office or in the Ventura office, where everyone was still remote, unless you had to be moving physical fruit.
If you were a bookkeeper, or you were HR, or you were in the executive arm of Food Forward, most of the time, you were working remote. I was in the office yesterday. I will be here pretty much every day because of the event we’re doing on Saturday, and I’m loving it. Thankfully, my commute is small, but just the sense of seeing faces I haven’t seen, catching up, those kind of just off-the-cuff conversations, looking in someone’s eyes instead of that weird kind of: I’m looking in the camera, but you’re down here stuff… very over it. And I think what’s lovely is we sold out this gala about a week ago, which is great for the bottom line, but it also sent a message to me that people are hungry to be together again.
Denver: Yeah. I think you’re right.
Rick: And I think, again, barring any catastrophe with a new variant, we’re going to learn to live with this— we have to. We know what it takes. That’s what’s crazy; we have vaccines; we have boosters; we have masks; we have all the tools we need to manage this, it’s now about personal will, and my will is that the organization that I lead comes through it strong, with lessons learned, but that we don’t shy away from the socialization that has to happen to keep the culture going.
Denver: Yeah, I think we’re also, as a society, more aware of the collateral damage that this has caused. I talk to a lot of educators, Rick, and you know they’re saying these 7- or 8-year-olds, they’re so far behind in their reading, and to fix that or address that, it’s going to take 5 or 10 years. You’re not going to fix that tomorrow.
So, I think we didn’t look at that. We looked at COVID and COVID alone, and not all the other things that can be costly.
Tell me about The Sprout.
Rick: Sure. The Sprout was the addition. So, I think we were maybe six weeks into COVID, and we saw those horrific images of farmers turning over their crops because they did not have a market anymore.
We saw the lines spiraling miles deep at food banks, and we said, “Wait a minute. We’re in a position here to do something, and there’s a moral imperative.” And so, we called our landlord, which happens to be The Salvation Army here in the city of Bell; they were grateful enough to give us another 10,000 feet in our warehouse that was dormant. We started accepting both the USDA boxed produce, but more importantly, we started building relationships with farmers directly and with distributors who were now— they supply the Hilton, and they supply giant arenas, and they had huge orders of produce that they had placed months in advance that were coming due, and they had no place for it.
And so, suddenly, there was this doubling of produce coming through the Pit Stop, and The Sprout became the extension by which we were able to take the big 53-foot loads coming in the Pit Stop in the front end, break them down, if you will, in a salad bowl and take a pallet. A normal pallet of produce has 30 to 40 boxes, we would mix that with 10 types of produce. So, you’d get three boxes of carrots and three boxes of bell peppers and so forth. So, it wasn’t a monocrop, but it was this wonderful mix. That pallet would go out of The Sprout to a smaller agency that could not take large quantities. And so, it became a form of innovation, and several of us. …I birthed the idea, brought it to leadership, brought it to our Agency Relations Team, and the big one was, bring it to the donors. And I said, “Look, we can’t piecemeal this together. We can’t do $5- and $10,000 grants.” And as the universe does provide, it provided us with, I think, six different funders that were willing to take a piece of the $800,000 we needed, and in 10 days, we were funded. And in less than six weeks, we were up and operating.
And The Sprout is now, we hope, a permanent part of Food Forward’s arsenal of getting food out to smaller and medium-sized agencies. And it’s been really neat the relationships we’ve built through The Sprout and the agencies that would have been spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each to go buy that produce.
One of the things Food Forward does is we have about 350 direct agencies that get food from us on a regular basis. And when you break down our economic impact, on average, they would each be receiving about $300,000 worth of fresh produce over the year. And you think about, that’s $300,000 they can then redirect to their programs, whether it’s recidivism, drug addiction, domestic abuse, homelessness. We’re in a sense helping funders redirect that money. And so, it’s been very, very neat to see the range of organizations who are now part of The Sprout as a portfolio. I would love to add more.
We’ve taken the approach in the last, I think, three years that we’re not really interested in these one-off mega distributions, where it’s like the mayor’s day of service, which is all good. You get relationships that are sustainable that show that we make a difference over time.
And so very soon, we’re going to be posting on our website, foodforward.org, a white paper that shows some of the evidence that we’ve gathered around health equity that we help foster, and economic impact. And so, the philosophy is for longer, deeper relationships, as we call them, roots over branches in the strategic planning world. And also, this year, we hope to find, through some mapping projects that we’ve now been working on: “Where are the blind spots or the black holes that we haven’t hit within LA County?” And then, as we start to fill those, see where we can grow beyond that.
But, we’ve been really excited about some of the partnerships. We have a new one with Brighter Bites. They’re a great organization out of Houston. They’re in multiple cities. They just landed in LA, and we are basically their exclusive produce provider. They build these wonderful boxes of, again, mixed types of produce; they go into schools, and they teach the parents and the kids about healthy eating– both cooking lessons and recipes, and they actually have scientific data that shows that 12- or 15-week curriculum that they bring into the school makes a lifetime of difference to the way that family eats.
And so, it’s wonderful. We don’t have those muscles. We bring mega produce out; we can laser focus where it goes, but they bring the teaching piece. And so, this partnership has been magical, and that’s about barely over two months old.
Denver: You do bring boxes to the poor, though. Maybe this is part of your photography background, but your boxes are a bit of your brand.
Rick: They are, they are. I’ll tell you that we had an opportunity early on to work with a large box manufacturer, those up in the Ventura County area. They had actually tapped us to harvest their– they have about 60 trees at the time, and I did some research. I’m like, “Why aren’t we doing a trade here for some… in-kind support?” And they’re like, “You got it.” So, we got to design the boxes, which was a blast, and they became our calling card because we used to use banana boxes, which is the currency of most food banks, and they have this big hole on the bottom so it’s not so practical for citrus.
But the Food Forward box started about a little over 10 years ago, and it’s one of those things— I love it. It’s like when I’m at a farmers market and I see them, or even I’ll be down like at the Venice Boardwalk, and I’ll see someone using… or a homeless person using those boxes to carry their stuff in or to gather donations, and to me, again, it’s sharing abundance. And if those boxes help somebody out in a third or fourth iteration, that’s great. But for us, they are a calling card at the farmers markets. They let farmers know that every stick of produce, every apple, every tangerine they put in those boxes is only going to people who are in need, and it gives them a sense of security. Yes, great branding, but it’s really about the efficiency, security, because these farmers are giving us tens of thousands of dollars in product, and they are trusting that it gets to the finish line, and so that box has become the stamp of good housekeeping for us.
Denver: Let me ask you about your business model, Rick. When I look at what you do, you could just as easily be a social enterprise, but you’re not. You’re a nonprofit organization. What led you to make that decision?
Rick: That’s a great question and choice regularly. And the reason we do it is exactly for what I said earlier is there are a number of organizations that offer produce at low costs. We have found that most of our partners will still avoid paying that because they don’t have it. And our feeling is we’re being given it for free, we should share it for free. It doesn’t work for everybody, and there’s plenty of folks that say, “Oh, you should be a social enterprise in the world as it is today.” We have donors who’ve been with us from day one that understand the need. They also understand the multiple wins in it, and that if we were charging for it, we would not be able to move as much of it. And so, we are really explicit that it’s the model that’s right for us and the crossroads we’re at in Los Angeles.
There are times, Denver, where we’re offered literally twenty 53-foot truckloads of tomatoes at peak Roma tomato season from the San Diego-Mexico border. If we had to stop and do a whole negotiation and be aware of: who’s going to buy them and what are they worth and what’s the market rate, they would have degraded by then. We know that we can raise the money to move those truckloads, and we work in partnership, and we get them out.
We also chose early on, this was my choice and I think, again, it’s been reconfirmed by our board and by our leadership, we are very proudly a B2B model. We do not do direct distribution to the public, except in some rare instances. And we do that because I think a nonprofit, it’s really important to know: What do you do best? and What niche is not being served?
And after those walks with Scout, when I started poking around at who was doing this and saw that no one was really supplying fresh produce to the 1,300 nonprofits except the food bank, and most food banks are happy if 20% of their allotment is produce. Meanwhile, all this stuff is coming in and going away. So, I saw there was no one doing it, and there was no one that was back of house making sure that these agencies, whether they were a mom and pop pantry or they were a giant food collective, no one was ensuring that they had a regular supply, and that’s where I thought Food Forward could work.
And it is proven to have been the right choice. We continue to tweak models and workflows as we go, but the basic premise of gifting this food to people has proven to be the right choice.
Denver: Yeah. It’s part of your ethos, but I also think that any business model that allows you to move fast is the right business model, and I would underscore that for an organization that deals in perishables. You’ve really got to be able to move really fast.
Rick: What’s crazy is that people don’t realize that before we even receive the produce, it’s on its way to decay. Once it’s off the plant, off the tree, out of the ground, it is starting to decompose. So, it’s this game of hot potato, no pun intended, but it’s also something where we know that there is an audience for it; there’s a need for it, and that’s never diminished at all in the 13 years we’ve been doing this. It’s only grown, unfortunately.
Denver: So, what’s your favorite vegetable? What’s your favorite food?
Rick: My spirit fruit is mango. I’m a frequent…
Denver: That’s why you brought up mangoes earlier on. I knew there was something.
Rick: Ironically, those were the first like large-quantity produce that was offered to us when we finally said, “Can we do the wholesale program?” It was mangoes that tipped us over the edge.
But for me, my happy place is on a beach in Costa Rica under a mango tree, where you could literally pull one off, slice it open, and get yourself really messy.
And I’ve also learned just two weeks ago, I was at the Pit Stop for a morning of work, and one of our managers there, Leo Paz, from Guatemala, has just incredible knowledge of fruit, brought me over and made me taste the mango. I’m like, “Leo, I’ve had these mangoes,” and then, “No, you haven’t tried these mangoes.” And it was incredible, the perfume off this fruit, and we had like a pallet and a half of them. I don’t know how they came to us and what was the circumstance, but they were the most incredible mangoes I’ve ever eaten. So, there you go.
Denver: And when mom says, “Rick, you’ve got to eat your vegetables,” What do you do?
Rick: I’m making the vegetables in those cases. I went from being the worst eater in the family, literally, like I am reminded regularly from my mom and dad, in my youth, that there were days where they couldn’t get me to eat. They’d be going to a Chinese restaurant for a family meal, and they’d have to stop at McDonald’s for me because I would not eat. And then that McDonald’s hamburger at the time had no ketchup, no onions, no pickles, no mustard; it was pretty sad. I can’t say I’m a gourmand now, but I have been to cooking school; I do love food on many levels, and I am now the one that pushes rare forms of prosciutto on them or different types of asparagus. And so, I’m known as the guy in the family that will push your palate a little bit more.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Also, it can be pretty obnoxious too. I wouldn’t eat anything… It’s now all good…
Rick: Yeah. We all just come full circle.
Denver: Like a reformed smoker or something.
Rick: Exactly, exactly.
“I think that innovation is really about, it’s a spirit, and it’s about working with other people. I don’t know how innovation happens when it’s non-collaborative.”
Denver: Hey, just listening, you do so many innovative things there. Innovation is hard. How do you think about it? What’s your mindset? And are you disciplined about it? Do you have a process?
Rick: I really appreciate the question. I think, for me, the innovation is knowing that something’s never done. I think it was Orson Welles that said: A film is never done, it’s abandoned. And in this case, I don’t want to abandon this work, but what it is hiring the best people you can find and giving them room to be collaborative, and actually making sure that there is an opportunity for that collaboration to catch fire and then be kind of burned into the next iteration. But there’s always another version after that. And so that’s one piece.
The other one is being able to say no. We were gifted the most amazingly simple mission, and I have been aware of that over and over as I work with nonprofit colleagues and all different sectors. A 5-year-old can understand it, and an 85-year-old can understand it. And so, we just keep it simple.
We have thought of education programs, and we have tried; people try to push us into advocacy, and I’m like, “No, what Food Forward does is this.” And we hire the people that do it well and the people that want to do it well and want to go deep with it.
And there’s so much room and opportunity to play within the sandbox that we built, that you really never get bored. There’s always something new, challenging you every day. And, God, you throw a pandemic in with that, it made the first 10 years of our existence look like a dress rehearsal. And now, we’re trying to catch our breaths, trying to force people to take a little vacation here and there before we push into the summer, which is always full of bumper crops for us. But I think that innovation is really about, it’s a spirit, and it’s about working with other people. I don’t know how innovation happens when it’s non-collaborative.
“I’ll never, never forget how one thing led to the next, and then how we’re lucky enough now to be involved in partnerships that are feeding farm workers and several communities… This ridiculously shameful irony we have that the people who harvest the food that you and I eat are not paid enough to afford that same food themselves.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah. Let me close with this, Rick. Edward R. Murrow had an impact on you, particularly his documentary, “Harvest of Shame.” Tell us about that, kind of how it melded your worlds together, both Food Forward and now, how it inspires you every day.
Rick: Wow. It’s so great to hear his name as he’s someone who does not get nearly the breath even that he got 10 or 20 years ago. I, in a past life, was a screenwriter, and I had actually secured the rights to the definitive biography on Murrrow, and in doing so, I got to speak with some of his colleagues before they passed, and I did lots of deep dives into archives and such, and came to respect this flawed but amazing guy as the Godfather of Modern-Day Broadcast Journalism. But “Harvest of Shame” was kind of seminal for many reasons. It was a rebellious act in a way when he broadcast it on Thanksgiving Eve to a captive audience of Americans that were about to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, and…
Denver: What year was that?
Rick: ’60 was the year. And it was a bit of flipping the middle finger to people, but it was done with expertise, it was done with precision, it was done with class as Murrow always did. And there was just something about him that I found, again, he was like this flawed American hero that just had such stories. He’s a guy who went through the Blitzkrieg in London, and he lived through the liberation of Buchenwald, like literally on the ground. This is not someone that did TikTok videos and sent them from his living room. This guy lived it. And so, to me, the crowning achievement was “Harvest of Shame,” and it led me into what became the migrant project for me, which was my own exploration with photography around the cost of feeding America, through the places and stories of California farm workers.
And, I’ll never, never forget how one thing led to the next, and then how we’re lucky enough now to be involved in partnerships that are feeding farm workers and several communities… This ridiculously shameful irony we have that the people who harvest the food that you and I eat are not paid enough to afford that same food themselves. Stop! Full sentence. Period, right there. There’s nothing else that really you can say about a society that can’t value their work and treat them fairly.
And so, I had the good fortune to go to about 50 towns across California. Very much inspired by “Harvest of Shame.” Think of what is happening today with these people. And how do you go a little deeper and look at the children, the indigenous folks, the LGBT community, women’s issues? And I got, over the course of two years, to meet numerous activists that granted me access to communities I never could have found otherwise.
And that became a book and a traveling exhibition with some prints that ended up in the Smithsonian, and it just kind of… I entered the food space from a civil rights perspective, and it was something that every day, I still think of… and which I think I’m fused with where Food Forward came. And again, in the last few years, as we’ve been able to make partnerships in Coachella, Ventura, Oxnard in lower Central Valley with these farm worker communities… and help get the food back into their hands has been incredibly rewarding.
And I’d like to push that goal to the next level in the years to come, but the fact that we’re making those connections and hopefully helping those families out feels like just doing a little bit to make it right.
Denver: Yeah. It’s amazing, Rick, sometimes, when you look back and you say, “Oh, this is how all these dots connected.” You never knew that at the time, but backwards, it’s like, “It all makes sense now.”
For listeners who want to learn more about Food Forward or financially support this work, or volunteer if they should be out on the West Coast, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Rick: Absolutely, foodforward.org is where you’ll find all that great information, whether it’s volunteering or donating fruit or financial support which we always are in need of. There are great calendars. We’ve just reopened our general volunteer calendar for both backyard harvest and the farmers market program, which is where most of our volunteer work goes.
But it also has lots of resources on food waste; it’s got our annual reports; it’s got blogs. It’s a tight community of folks that do this work, and we try and make sure that we tip our hats to those that we stand with and stand next to and whatnot.But foodforward.org is the clearing house for that information.
Denver: All good stuff. Thanks, Rick, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Rick: Thank you, Denver. Appreciate the opportunity and the interest in that and the areas we work.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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