Feeding People and Helping the Climate

Photo by Jeffery Dawson, courtesy of Food Forward

Rick Nahmias is an award-winning photographer and author of The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers, which documents the hardships of the marginalized lives of the people who feed the country. He’s dedicated to food justice and the idea that access to healthy food is a human right. These principles led him to start a grassroots neighborhood food recovery program donating backyard citrus fruit to local Los Angeles food banks and to ultimately found Food Forward. Since 2009, Food Forward has recovered over $271 million worth of good food headed for the landfill, and fed millions of people in eight counties in Southern California, seven other states and tribal lands in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma. Those efforts have had a significant climate impact. The food recovered avoided 50,000 metric tons of Co2 equivalent by redirecting surplus food from the landfill where it is a major emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas more damaging than Co2.

ARTY MANGAN: Your interest in food justice and hunger goes back to your book: The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers. How did that project lead you to your work alleviating food insecurity?

RICK NAHMIAS: After The Migrant Project, food justice became my way to plug into the bigger issues of justice, as someone who cooks, someone who grew food, someone who had been in the fields, someone who had the privilege of being a white male and being able to use that opportunity to bring people’s eyes and ears to a story that we all are affected by. 

I continued doing photography and in 2008- 2009, and I was doing volunteer work on the Obama campaign and on Proposition 8, a California state initiative to ban same sex marriage. Prop 8 passed and it invalidated my marriage along with tens of thousands of others. I had a bizarre political/emotional whiplash; on one hand, I felt so good about a new leader, but I also felt like shit about my fellow Californians who just nullified my right to love somebody and build a life with the person I choose. It made me reevaluate my life.

I was done with eight years of having a lot of anger fuel my work, which was the only silver lining of the Bush years. It gave me something to push back on as an artist politically and as a citizen. After that, I needed to do something that was out of a place of generosity. I needed it to be smaller and more local because these huge state and national initiatives were draining. I felt like a grain of sand on the beach, so to speak. I really didn’t see how I could help those issues. 

So, I planted that seed in my head and at the same time, unfortunately, my dog was aging quickly. We would take slower and slower walks around the neighborhood, and I started noticing this abundance of fruit on trees all around my home that were going to waste, mostly citrus, but other fruits too. At that time, the Great Recession began to take hold. I thought, what if this fruit, which is in massive abundance, could get to a food pantry through the hands of volunteers to help bolster the dry goods that were coming out of food banks, which notoriously struggle trying to obtain fresh produce. I put an ad out on Craigslist. I enlisted a friend who had two fruit trees. Six people responded to my Craigslist ad, and one of them actually showed up the day of the event. She and I, over the next three weekends, harvested my friend’s backyard. We came away with about 800 pounds of citrus, which went to a food pantry about two miles away. It was just kind of the right idea at the right time and it exploded from there.

The food pantry was very grateful, and basically said, “More, please.” It was the first time in my life that there was a tailwind to an idea. There was also a live fourth dimension I was working in. I wasn’t a photographer with a bunch of glass and metal between me and my subject. It was an immediate take-fruit-off-tree, put-in-box, give it to people. There was the sense of a virtuous circle in which I became the change-maker, which is timeless; it’s biblical, literally and figuratively. It is all about sharing and giving and gifting with nothing in return but the endorphins. And it was simple, and simplicity was what I wanted after several years of very complex logistics with photography, fundraising, and managing exhibitions and putting books together. It was, what I call, fruit therapy. You get up in a tree and become a 5-year old again. At the end of it, you have half a dozen boxes of fruit that you get to give away to people. There was no downside. 

So it became my hobby and the hobby of a bunch of other kind of kooky people, and we became like a little tribe. We’d do potlucks together. We’d go out on fruit adventures in different parts of Southern California that we heard had an orchard. We would do all kinds of stuff together, and it built this community that just became this wonderful flywheel of enthusiasm and passion that multiplied. At the end of our first year, we had 100,000 pounds of backyard harvested fruit by hand. That’s a lot of fruit.  Maybe not for a professional in the field, but for a bunch of middle-class white people who don’t do this professionally and just did it on the weekends, it was a lot of food. We realized there was so much more that could be done. So that’s the genesis of it.  

Photo by Serena Creative Courtesy of Food Forward

ARTY: You mentioned food justice as one of your motivations for this work. How do you define food justice?

RICK: Food justice is ensuring that everybody has access to healthy, affordable food, period. It’s making sure that one’s economic place in our society is not an arbiter about how, when, and what you get to eat. It’s making sure that everybody gets fed.

Hunger is not a supply problem, it’s a distribution problem. It’s something within our means to eradicate. And that may sound very pie in the sky, no pun intended, but it is really true when you look at how much is grown in our fields and how much is left behind. It’s really a shameful equation.

Food justice is when you feed people, you empower them. When you starve them, you keep them down. There’s been a lot of talk in this last year around different types of justice – racial, social, etc. To me food justice overlaps with racial justice. I’ve had to remind people, even within my organization, that what Food Forward does is a racial justice action, because the food we are giving away is nourishing people who are fighting on the frontlines of racial justice struggles. Without the nutritious and healthy food that we’re giving away, they would have to seek food in other places. So we’re enabling their physical health which enables them to continue to fight. It’s an indirect correlation, but I think it’s very much there. But to be clear, I do not put Food Forward out as a racial justice organization. 

ARTY: What are some of the communities that you serve, and what’s the scope of hunger in those communities?

RICK: Los Angeles, even as recently as the 1940s and ‘50s, was the largest agricultural producing county in the country. It now has the largest food insecure population in the country. What’s even more shameful is that Los Angeles has maybe the largest number of farmers’ markets of any city in the country, over 200 weekly. We have more food flow through the LA County area – whether it’s our highways, the ports, the northern part of the county where some of the food is grown, the wholesale terminal in downtown Los Angeles – than any city in America, maybe North America if you don’t count Mexico City. How is it that we have more hungry people than anywhere else in the country? 

I want to look at this problem from every area of need. I want to know the mostly Hispanic immigrant families in Pacoima who are food insecure; I want to be able to touch the low income senior LGBTQ community in Hollywood, because they’re food insecure; I want to be able to reach the low income Asian restaurant worker community out in the San Gabriel Valley; I want us to reach farm workers in Ventura County who are food insecure and so on. Food Forward has always taken great pains to be as diverse and inclusive regarding whom food insecurity affects and whom we can back up in the sense of giving food to. We supply food to well over 350 direct service agencies. We’ve come out of a crazy year-and-a-half where we grew our produce distribution mostly through our wholesale program. That program distributes produce to eight counties in Southern California, plus seven additional states, and tribal lands reaching all the way to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. We take great pains to lower any barriers. 

We’re a business-to-business operation, for the most part. It’s very rare that we do in-person distributions anymore. Those are mostly done by our partners, and that’s purposeful because we want to empower them and not try to duplicate the muscles they’ve developed. From being in the trenches for 12 years with them, we know their biggest stumbling block is having a fresh produce pipeline. So, we make sure they are getting a free diverse menu of produce on a regular basis. 

ARTY: On the global scale, there’s enough food for everyone, and yet there’s something like two billion people who are food insecure to some degree. Why is that? What’s wrong with the system?

Photo by Vanessa Bly courtesy of Food Forward

RICK: The cynic in me knows that there is definitely political will behind a lot of this. If you keep people hungry, you keep them quiet, you keep them docile. Right? It’s very hard to have a social uprising or political uprising if you can’t feed yourself or your children. It also means you’re spending a lot of time looking for food rather than challenging political stances or unfair policies. I believe there is truth to that.

I also believe that there is a lot of shame around food insecurity, and that a lot of the faces of people who are food insecure are still hidden. You see a lot of food insecurity in seniors, and, in many cases, single dwellers who are shut-ins who are no longer able to provide for themselves and are reliant on programs. You also see a great lack of nourishment and food insecurity in schools. 

We don’t value the true cost of what it takes to create the food, and that’s why we are wasting a ridiculous amount of it from the farm level all the way to the consumer. The two-sided coin that Food Forward is most concerned with is food waste and food insecurity. Our solution solves both problems at the same time. In the last term of Obama, the federal government began to talk about food waste as an issue. But for four years the last administration went silent on the topic.

We hope to holistically educate people that when you throw away a box of strawberries because they got moldy in the back of your refrigerator, you’re throwing away the fertilizer that was produced to cultivate them, you throw away the water, you’re throwing away the fuel for the truck that brought them to your store, etc. It’s not a single bit of waste; there are dozens of elements that go into a single clamshell of strawberries that you’re throwing away. If the gravitas of the problem in its various realms – environmental, economic, social, biological – were truly brought out to the public, you’d see a lot less waste and you’d see a lot less food insecurity.

ARTY: At the farm level, is it overproduction that drives some of this waste?

RICK: We’re told that on average, a farmer will grow twice as much food as they need to break even. And they’ll harvest only what they can sell. So, there’s a huge amount of loss in the fields because of the lack of economic incentive to harvest the food that farmers don’t have a market for. There are these ridiculously wasteful products like romaine hearts; about 90 percent of that plant is left in the field and only the romaine hearts are sold. They chop off everything that’s not a romaine heart.  In what world does that make sense?

ARTY: There is so much surplus in the fields, but only a very small percentage of that actually gets donated through systems like yours. How can more of that food be redirected so that more hungry people are fed?

Photo by Jeffrey Dawson courtesy of Food Forward

RICK: It starts with building relationships between the source and the end user, and trying to mitigate as many midpoints as possible. I believe that farmers want to feed folks. Yes, there are a lot of big, corporate farmers, but most farmers are growing food because they want to feed people. It’s probably heartbreaking for a farmer to plow a field under. We meet up with farmers at the farmers’ markets every week to connect them with folks whom they can help feed with their surpluses. 

Our farmers’ market program has become a model for a lot of organizations. We’ve given them our handbook. The farmer has driven two hours with the produce that they’ve pulled out of the ground just hours ago, and maybe only three-quarters of it sells. The last thing they want to do is throw the remainder out. We show up with the endorsement of a local farmers’ market manager. They see our volunteers, they see our boxes, and in that moment, they can choose to either cart that extra produce home or throw it away, or better yet, give it to an organization that feeds the hungry. Right there, you’re making a direct connection from the heart. That connection can get lost when there are too many layers of logistics and monetary issues in between. 

The more that we, as a society, can craft direct connections between food sources and food consumption, the more you can mitigate hunger.

ARTY: Are there policies that are in your way, and if you could change things, how would you change them?

RICK: There are some good policies that are coming into law very soon in California banning food scraps being thrown into the trash; it requires individuals and businesses to recycle food scraps and organic waste so that it can be composted. Hopefully we’re going to see some success with that. But that addresses the back end of the problem. 

On the front end, a big impact could be made by widening tax deductions and making it easy for farmers to get the same tax deduction that Chipotle gets when they donate a burrito. Businesses get the full retail value of the burrito deducted from their taxes. Why is it that the farmer can only deduct a fraction of the market commodities price on what they donate? Why don’t you reward him or her at the same level that you do a retail partner? If that injustice was corrected and if there was parity there, I think you’d see a greater desire to move that produce out of waste streams and into hunger streams.

 ARTY:  What can people do at the individual level?

RICK: I like to say, “eat with intention.” What that means is a very personal thing, but come to your food as kind of a sacred ritual and as something we, most Americans, are lucky to have three times a day. Not only knowing and honoring that, but understanding how do I, as an individual, mitigate waste in my own space. There is so much you can do to move the needle as an individual and then collectively. It all starts with the intention of wanting to mitigate my food waste by 50 percent in the next month or year. You make that choice and you make it happen. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you, because it’s one of the easiest things you can do yourself. 

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