Our Heroes: Rick Nahmias, Founder and Executive Director of Food Forward

photo by Bettina Chavez

In June I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Eager to win me over to the Big Orange, my friend Jack signed us up to volunteer withFood Forward, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers to harvest excess fruits and vegetables, an age-old practice known as gleaning. Food Forward donates the produce to food bank that distributes it to food pantries throughout the area. This week’s hero, Rick Nahmias, founded and directs the program.

Our volunteer day, led by Jack’s good friend and Food Forward volunteer coordinator Max Kantor, took place at the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, where 30 of us gleaned orange trees in the breathtaking labyrinth-like grove for two hours. Rick wasn’t there that day, but the embodiment of his vision was, and like a well-oiled machine we picked over 4,000 pounds of oranges – 16,000 servings of fruit. As we loaded box after box into the truck I turned to look back at the grove. It looked exactly as it had before we began, with hundreds of thousands of oranges that would be left to ripen, fall and rot. We had skimmed the surface and it would benefit thousands of people, but there was so much left to be done.

Scenes like this – rich with life and sometimes bittersweet, inspired Rick to found Food Forward, and they also serve as subjects for his work as a photographer, writer and filmmaker. Rick’s accomplishments in all of these areas have earned him praise in LA and nationally. The Vegetarian Times recently named him one of the top 10 New Food Heroes and his critically acclaimed photojournalism art and educational exhibit The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farmworkers opens today at New York City’s Chelsea Market, where it will run through November 4th.

When I called to set up an interview with Rick I was told that things were “crazy” over at Food Forward, and I could tell it was the kind of crazy you work to build and maintain, not dig out from under. The kind of crazy that means your message has been heard and your call is being answered.

Jen: So Rick, how are you doing, aside from everything being crazy?

Rick: Lots of crazy good stuff. What can I say? It’s a really exciting time to be doing what we're doing. It seems like, as you can probably tell, with the food world as it is now and the innovative things around food it’s the time to be doing this work.

Absolutely. There are so many connections to be made and so many people trying to get in on it and really make a difference.

Absolutely. And to me, one of the biggest things that I always say is that hunger is pretty inexcusable right now in this country, and it’s not an issue of anything but distribution. And basically people should be getting the food that’s there, that exists. It’s not like we're in Sub-Saharan, Africa and there’s famine. We have insane surplus. It’s all about the economics and the politics of it and in our case it’s really about trying to open channels of distribution to get nutritious food to people.

How is Food Forward doing that?

Well we started again with one tree that yielded about 300 pounds of tangerines. And that was a bit over three years ago and now our next monthly total should be 1 million pounds of fresh produce. Most of that’s citrus, some of it’s vegetables, some of it’s peaches, some of it’s - who knows what? But it’s all fresh local produce. Living where we live and being blessed with a 12 month growing season has only made it more apparent to me that what we are doing is a complete no-brainer. I may have been lucky enough to come up with the idea and get this going and meet a really wonderful, talented group of people, but it’s incredibly simple. You know, what we're doing is we're talking about picking something off a tree and giving it to someone who doesn’t have access to it.

It’s not about planting and reengineering things; it’s really taking something and reimagining how we look at food. How it affects our lives, and how this can be an agent to bring people together. And that’s really my underlying philosophy, and my underlying goal for the organization is for people to really evaluate the place for food in their lives as well as what food waste is like in our lives.

You have gotten a tremendous response from the community. I've been told that you've been overwhelmed with offers to have people come and glean their properties.

Right now, for every property that we can glean, there are several properties that we can’t. I think we're getting 30 to 40 properties registered on our website a month, and we're doing about 20 harvests a month. We've got to factor in new properties and we're trying return to as many as the older properties that we did in the years before so that we build kind of a repertoire. We have an allegiance to the family and individuals who have offered their food to us before. We're also trying to build up our harvesting core of pick leaders, people like Max and Julie and the twenty other people that go out once a month for us, including myself. Everyone in our office, although they are not required to, does service for the organization. I've really tried to nurture a culture of service where once a month we do one pick each, and I think helped create an environment where people are invested in this as more than a job. It’s a very simple thing and our volunteers love it - it’s a four hour commitment, and we're always trying to bring in new pick leaders. It’s really become kind of its own little family. We are training a few in any given month, where it goes on for a very small, like two or three session training. And after that, once a month we ask them to pick out a location and a date and we find a harvest for them. So it’s not always their next door neighbor, but it’s usually within ten or fifteen miles of their house, it’s on a day of their choosing and they become kind of the host of this harvest party, whether it’s five people or it’s 50 people. And obviously if it’s 50 people we bring some staff in. But it’s about them again, bringing a message out of both volunteerism and about creating a process of what you witness, which is eight boxes or eighty boxes of citrus that just materializes from a tree and into the hands of those who need it. It’s so simple. It works with children, it works with older people, it works with people of different economic backgrounds, and it just is the kind of tangibility. What we do is a real turn on for folks.

That is definitely something that I experienced when I was out there. I picked at Huntington Library and we came away with 4,000 pounds of oranges.

There is something special about Huntington Gardens and those types of relationships are growing with us. We have a couple of other large properties like Cal State Northridge, and those large harvesting events bring out a whole different sense of the abundance.

That was what struck me. The abundance. What were they doing before you stepped in?

One time I passed one of these city parks where you see a bulldozer with hundreds or thousands of grapefruit. It was just maddening. I took a photograph, because we were having trouble getting into this particular property and I kind of took it as like, "This is the evidence. This is the crime going on here." And when you've got people waiting in line at pantries and all they are getting are crackers and a cup of noodles, this is frickin' ridiculous. So this is what’s going on in City Land and we're offering to come in at no cost, and harvest this stuff. What is the problem? We didn’t have to go to those ends to prove our point, but it’s not something that everybody appreciates. And that’s what makes it crazy. It’s not that everyone has to love Food Forward, but whether you are gleaning it yourself, or you are hiring someone to do it, just don’t let that food go to waste.

Right. Another thing that struck me, is we were picking for two hours and I looked at the trees at the end, and I didn’t notice a dent.

Exactly. That was one of those things where that’s a good feeling and a bad feeling, because it means we have to come back again. The first pick I was ever on with Max, when he was just starting with us, there was this grapefruit fruit tree where there is no water, no fertilizer and no one touches this tree, and it gives off 13000 pounds of grapefruits a year, one freakin' tree. We had 15 people and we just cleaned it completely.

There is a little video on our website called Fruitanthropy and that tree is in it. It gives you an idea of what one tree looks like completely full and what it looks like completely naked. And we absolutely love that kind of thing. It talks a lot about the philosophy of what we're doing.  I feel deeper change can occur if we were to get into people’s psyches and say, "Look, statistics bear out that over 40 percent of the fruit we produce in this country is wasted. It’s thrown away or not harvested.”

If we can just re-gauge our expectations around food waste, think of how much power we can harness. How many resources don’t have to be spent to overproduce. These are trees that are producing year-in and year-out, even if we're not there. What’s crazy to me is it’s one of those things where it’s nature. We may not be able to get to a tree I spot in my neighborhood for whatever reason, the owner is on vacation or they've got a renter, and the renter doesn’t want anyone in the backyard. Whatever the issue is, we can’t get to the fruit that year. And I just walk by and every time I walk by it’s a little bee sting, because I know that’s because of the powers that be in this universe of ours that we'd get that fruit. It’s there for us to take it. The tree is healthier when it’s harvested. There are so many wins in harvesting this stuff that I really find it difficult to not do it.

It really seems that based on the amount of volunteers you get that your message is spreading. You've had a lot of success with organizing. What tools you are using for educating and organizing people?

We've been really fortunate with people like yourself who can get the message, appreciate it and want to spread it, whether it’s through blogs or a TV interview or a random article. But the truth is, people just coming on a pick we will kind of evangelize what we are doing and want to do it. People have come on a pick and they'd say, "I'd like to do this in my county." And what instances of that has actually materialized into is these people becoming super volunteers and then leading a harvest once a month in their own county, they bring in -- and it’s just this kind of replication and rippling out. And social media has been a huge part of it. We only have about a thousand people on Facebook, but using the social media instead of stuffing people’s mail boxes is making a statement about environmentally sound practices, and there is no reason why more of it can’t be done.

How did you personally get involved in the food movement?

I got into food during 9/11. That was my big thing, because I turned inward. When all these people started saying, who is the enemy and terrorist out there? My thing was like, "I want to have a dinner party, I want to spend whatever time I have with my friends and I want to eat well." And that turned into a passion for food and it turned into learning how to cook properly and semi-professionally, doing some personal chef gigs in between jobs. Once you get into food it’s really hard to get away from it. The culture really entices you. It was getting into that world also seeing it as this democratization, this common language people speak whether you're in Italy or you're in Africa, people gather around food. It became a way for me to be personally rewarded and creatively doing my own projects with an artistic expression, but it also has food at its core.

It’s this personal connection with food that I think is very strongly exhibited through what you are doing. It gives people a connection to where their food is coming from.

Yeah, there’s no question. You know, there is a deep pride in it which when you produce food. It’s a feeling of satisfaction, of sharing. I just came in after lunch with a bag of tomatoes and I'm like, it was nice to be able to share this with people. I don’t want to just keep this at home and grow these for myself, but someone else should enjoy what’s coming out of the earth in my backyard. It nurtures an overall sense of sharing through the culture in which people want to give and do good. We need more of that.

You produce a lot, and it’s not just in the food movement. You are a professional photographer, writer and filmmaker. How you kind of see the interconnection of all these projects?

I think there’s an underlying theme of community. It’s just a fascination with what makes people connect, whether it’s through food or something else. If it’s through one of my photo projects, it could be Golden States of Grace, which is about religion and how people connect through religion. In our case here, it’s through gleaning, the model of harvest food by and for communities. We like to go to events and celebrations, which are not just gleaning events, but they are ways to thank the people in Los Angeles, whether they are volunteers or donors for their ongoing support of us. It’s making things happen in a way that feel like our city is not 8 million, but maybe 800.  I can honestly say the last month or two, I've gone to a few events, either birthdays or conferences, and the world does feel like it’s getting smaller. It feels like there are people creating new varieties of foods to market, or they are cheese makers or they are establishing a new farmers market in the area. It’s something we all can get behind and support and we all should, and they are doing it with the same generosity of spirit. We're not doing these things, I mean, so many people I know are taking a left-hand turn out of marketing, out of banking, out of real estate and they are taking it out of necessarily more financially lucrative lives and into more spiritual, and I think, emotionally lucrative lives. And I just came on fulltime to do this six months ago, and I feel so incredibly rewarded in a way that I never expected.

What new challenges and projects are you encountering now?

We just announced a new farmer’s market recovery program that’s going to start in a few weeks, which will allow us to, in a systematized way, to pilot what we glean at one of the largest markets in Los Angeles and getting that to agencies much like we do when we harvest. But that needs funding and it needs patrons.  So we'll be out shaking the trees to get money to sustain that. We also have a new branch in Ventura which has an insane amount of produce, and we have a very, very overstressed coordinator there, half time, at probably 35 hours a week, and we need to fund her.

So we're getting great support, we're getting great partnerships, but we do need for people who would, let’s say normally fund LA food bank or more how do you say, inside-the- box solutions to hunger, to realize that we are a legitimate piece of the equation and that we need to be sustained as well. And we're also doing social enterprising. Our managing director, Meg Glasser, has created this wonderful series of food preserving workshops called Canning. And they are in their second year and they sold out both years, and basically they are quarterly classes with people who are doing innovation around food and food preserving. And they are teaching them in their kitchens and on their farms teaching groups of 10 to 15 people how to make goat cheese, how to make a gourmet jams and jellies, and how to start your own businesses. So we're raising money through teaching and education, as well, and it’s a way that we can again, get our mission out there.

So my next question seems silly, because you are doing what you love, but I'll ask it anyway. What do you do in your free time?

Well I've got a relatively new dog. He’s a handful. The dogs that were with me when we founded Food Forward sadly passed. And our new dog is like a child. He’s sitting here looking at me now like, "Huh?"  He’s a Catahoula Leopard dog. It’s a Louisiana red neck hunting dog. He’s a rescue. He’s a sweetheart. I'm also a huge music enthusiast, whether it’s electronic or classic rock or whatever, I'm a huge music person. And food. I'm often cooking for friends at least once a week.

I'd also like to tell you that the Migrant Project will be coming to the Chelsea market this fall as an exhibit. It will be September through the beginning of November, for two months. It’s really cool. I've long wanted to come there and we have a sponsor and the markets are great, there’s a lot of great traffic there and it’s a great place for people to get see it.

That’s so exciting! It’s a great way for you to inspire more people. On that note, I was wondering who your heroes are and who inspires you?

There’s a bunch of people. I'd say Edward R. Murrow is at the top of the list. The godfather of broadcast and investigative journalism. Dorthea Lang, photographer would be high on the list. I'll leave it at that.