Q&A with Hidden Harvest CEO Samantha McKenzie

Every year, 21 million Americans need emergency food help. At the same time, up to 1/5 of our food goes to waste. Experts estimate that each person in Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties throws away about 140 pounds of food. Since 1994, Hidden Harvest has rescued as much of that wasted food as possible to give it to agencies that feed people in need. Hidden Harvest President and CEO Samantha McKenzie talks about the agency’s mission and how you can help.

Q. Can you describe the Hidden Harvest mission?

In August, area farmers donated more than 20,000 pounds of sweet corn to Hidden Harvest.Hidden Harvest was started by the Saginaw Community Foundation in partnership with Good Neighbors Mission in 1994. The whole concept of community foundations is using the resources of philanthropists in the community to give to specific agencies. The Saginaw Community Foundation had heard about food rescue organizations in other parts of the country and brought it back here. Rescuing food is another way to give back. For the agencies that we work with, we saved over $6 million in the last fiscal year. Those agencies are able to do good things with that money. They’re advocating for women who’ve been abused or people who need long-term housing or someone going through substance-abuse treatment. Their missions are greater than food. We can help take this resource that’s already in the system – from restaurants, grocery stores, farmers, bakeries – and get it to these agencies that are really doing great things in our communities.

Q. How did you become involved in Hidden Harvest?

A. I’ve been president of Hidden Harvest for about 3 ½ years now. Before that, I was the executive director of the Hospital Hospitality Houses of Saginaw, so we housed families who had loved ones in the hospital. A lot of times people just got into the back of an ambulance with their spouse and didn’t think a bit about their own needs. We were able to provide meals because of Hidden Harvest’s kindness toward our organization. Now, I get to help 170 different non-profits throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region to help provide meals, and that’s awesome.

Q. Where does Hidden Harvest get its donations?

A. We pick up donations from businesses around the region in our little white trucks. Our region has rich agricultural resources, so we get a lot of our food from farmers. There’s also a lot of food waste in the production system, so we make weekly trips to the Detroit area to pick up some of the excess produce. There’s still about 50 dumpsters a day of fresh produce that’s wasted, so that’s really disheartening.

We pick up from canned food drives and home gardens. We really appreciate those donations, but we also try to make up routes efficient. We ask that if you call us for a pick-up, you have at least 20 pounds of food. There are some churches that gather donations from individual home gardens to reach that quantity.

Q. How many families do you serve?

A. That’s really hard for us because we’re strictly business to business. Every one of our agencies has different metrics. So Good Samaritan Rescue Mission, for example, serves three meals a day, but counts how many nights people stay. At the Salvation Army, they’re counting the number of people who come through the door each day, so one person could come Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We really can’t provide an unduplicated number.

We say we’ve saved 37 million pounds of food since 1994. Last year alone, we rescued 2.5 million pounds of food.

Since forming in 1994, Hidden Harvest has rescued 37 million pounds of food from restaurants, farms, grocery stores, and more to distribute throughout Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties.

Q. How do you measure the need in the area?

A. Bay County is so unique in that food is consistently the top need for people reaching out to 211 Northeast Michigan.  Utility assistance, housing, and food are consistently the top three needs for people throughout the region. In other parts of the region, food generally isn’t the top need. In Bay County, though, food is what people are calling for. Out of the 6,000 calls made to 211 from Bay County last year, 26% were for food. That’s been consistent since 2016. Each of those calls represents more than one person. If I called, I’d be representing my family of 5, so the need is pretty significant.

There’s always a hot meal available in Bay County. The Salvation Army does Monday through Saturday meals. And then Food of Faith is on Sundays and Thursdays. There are a couple different locations for Food of Faith.

We don’t often get to see the people our food actually gets to, except on those special project days. We know the business and the kitchen staff, but it really puts it in perspective when you’re face to face with people. We work with Do-All Inc. once a month to do a mass drive-through food distribution. When you put a box of food in someone’s car, you know if they’re living in their car. You know when you put the food in a cooler that the amount of food you give them is probably all the food they have available in the world. Those are the days you can really tell what hunger looks like.

Q. How can people help Hidden Harvest?

A. We receive support from the United Way, so donations to United Way always help. We also really appreciate when people do food drives for us. People also can help by contributing to the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive in May. We also need people to volunteer the first Thursday of each month at Do-All.

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