Food rescue and food bank nonprofit Food Gatherers (FG) has made remarkable contributions to the fight against hunger in Washtenaw County. But as FG celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, the primary goal it was founded on remains frustratingly out of reach.
"The only thing we didn't achieve was ending hunger in the county," says FG founder Paul Saginaw. "That's the unfortunate part."
Saginaw, also a cofounder of Zingerman's, hatched the idea for FG while reading a food magazine in his office in 1988. He came upon a story about a New York City-based group of volunteers who collected perfectly good items from food photo shoots and delivered them to the Salvation Army.
"I thought, 'What a brilliant idea,'" Saginaw says. "Every day, there's food that's wholesome and safe that can't be sold to the public, for a number of reasons."
Saginaw had already been pondering how Zingerman's could give back to its community after the nationally-known deli found itself fielding an increasing number of food donation requests. Because it's a food-based business, Saginaw says "it just made sense that our focus should be hunger relief."
Saginaw tapped Lisa DeYoung, then a supervisor on Zingerman's sandwich line, to research and reach out to various local nonprofits that combat hunger, and learn more about the nature of their needs. Meanwhile, Saginaw approached area restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, and more to see what kind of donations he could pull together and redistribute to hot meal programs. FG made its first delivery in November 1988, just before Thanksgiving.
"What we'd started was a perishable food rescue program – the first in Michigan, and only the third, I think, in the country," Saginaw says. "And the only one born out of a for-profit business."
If you're surprised to learn that FG's roots lie within Zingerman's walls, that's by design. Though Zingerman's always has a representative on FG's board, and offers a great deal of supportive services to the nonprofit, FG transitioned from being an in-house Zingerman's project to an independent entity in 1993.
"We were careful not to attach our name to it," Saginaw says. "Other businesses probably wouldn't have jumped on the bandwagon if it looked like a blatant marketing ploy. So we kept our name far in the background with the belief that if we did this thing right, almost anything was possible and we'd be able to do extraordinary things."
And so they have. With the help of 7,500 volunteers, FG has delivered 6.3 million pounds of food – 3 million of which were "rescued," thereby significantly reducing waste – to 170 local nonprofit agencies this year. Meanwhile, various FG programs target specific at-risk groups. The Healthy School Pantry Program works with schools to deliver fresh produce to families; the Summer Food Service Program provides meals to kids when school is out; the Neighborhood Grocery Initiative services communities with limited transportation or mobility; and the Community Kitchen in the Robert J. Delonis Center not only provides meals to shelter residents, but also offers a job training program program for those aged 16 to 20.
"Countless organizations, including ours, would not be able to offer healthy foods to people that need it without (FG's) support," says Ellen Rabinowitz, health officer at Washtenaw County Public Health. "They not only provide food, (but) they do tremendous work to make sure it's the best food possible and that it is provided with respect."
Despite all that work, a sobering one in seven people in Washtenaw County are still food insecure, according to FG president and CEO Eileen Spring. Meeting their needs has only grown more challenging over time for a number of reasons. Spring, who's been with FG since 1994, says FG was originally conceived as "supplemental" to federal programs.
"We're going along ... thinking we're giving this added value to the safety net," she says. "But what was happening was the federal safety net was diminishing."
Consequently, communities across the country have come to rely heavily on charitable networks to fill the gap. And of those one in seven Washtenaw County residents who suffer from food insecurity, Spring says 40 percent aren't eligible for a federal program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That's because the cost of living here is so high that many people working a full-time job may make too much money to be eligible for federal assistance, yet still struggle to cover housing and food costs.
Food insecurity also spiked as a result of the Great Recession, and though the economy has since improved, Spring notes that local food insecurity rates never significantly declined in tandem. Furthermore, grocery trends – like pre-cut produce, which has a drastically shorter shelf life than whole produce – continue to make food rescue challenging.
As part of a national food bank network called Feeding America, FG gets to see where it stacks up against others in its field. Spring says FG is a national leader in number of volunteers and donors per population member.
"That's really awesome," she says. "It's a great testament to the community spirit here, but it's also really frightening to my board right now. Because if we are at the highest saturation of volunteerism and private donations, what does that mean for the future? How do we sustain?"
FG is currently conducting research about the social determinants of food insecurity and will be advocating for long-term strategies and policies for Washtenaw County. FG is also planning to create a new policy agenda for its own work, to be presented to partners and other local stakeholders in an April 24 event at Washtenaw Community College.
Although FG's three-decade-long fight against hunger in Washtenaw County shows no signs of wrapping up soon, Spring remains hopeful.
"We have a lot of great things going for us, but one of the best things we've got is Zingerman's DNA," Spring says. "So we're smart, we're good at food, good at customer service, we're strategic thinkers, and we have a sense of personality and fun. That is a great gift."
But is it bittersweet to celebrate the 30th anniversary of an organization you originally hoped would end hunger in Washtenaw County?
"Absolutely," Spring says.
Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.
All photos by Doug Coombe.