Forgotten Harvest increases its hunger-fighting efforts for metro Detroit families

Forgotten Harvest, serving Southeast Michigan, is one of the nation’s premier food rescue organizations. It was created over 30 years ago by an incredible woman named Dr. Nancy Fishman, to rescue healthy, nutritious food from grocery stores, food manufacturers and distributors, farmers and restaurants, and to deliver that food to communities in need. 

In the food business, there's an excess that, for whatever reason, doesn't make it into the distribution supply chain. Though its near perfect, its still likely to go to waste because most food businesses aren't equipped to donate their items in a way that's safe, reliable and efficient. That’s where we come in.

With a fleet of over 30 vehicles, we rescue that food and deliver it to one of our many agency partners who distribute it to families in need. For smaller donations, our volunteer Harvest Heroes generously use their own vehicles to pick up and deliver food to nearby pantries. What began with one woman and her jeep has evolved into an operation that, during the pandemic, was able to feed one million people. We feel honored to be a part of this legacy.

Since COVID-19, food insecurity has risen across metro Detroit. There are people and families who don’t know where their next meal, or a future meal, is coming from. When the pandemic created supply chain issues, empty grocery store shelves and a challenge to people’s mobility, we saw the need for food assistance rise by several hundred thousand people across the region. These numbers are receding, but they're still high. And it’s not a static group. 

Many folks are still trying to figure out how to settle into a sustainable lifestyle, and hold on until they get back to normal. Families have experienced loss of work, illness, and loss of loved ones, among other hardships. With that, there's been some very real disruptions of people's ability to put food on the table. 

The spikes we've seen in the last few months have been, in some regard, more severe than those we saw early on. People are more familiar with how to deal with COVID-19, and there are a lot of mechanisms in place to allow us to keep life going, but I can’t say what our service numbers will look like post-pandemic because we're not there yet. 

Fortunately, we’ve been able to maintain food supplies with our partners, which has enabled us to consistently serve the need. And the need shifts. For instance, in our Oak Park distribution,  where we didn’t even have a mobile pantry until COVID-19, this has since been one of our most frequented locations by people in northern Oakland County and the surrounding area. 

Our mobile pantries are critical in helping us connect with families who may not have a direct relationship with a social service agency, or who aren’t comfortable getting intimate with a group of people they view as strangers. We put the food in your car, and you keep on going with your life. It’s more of an ad hoc way of getting people help in a short amount of time, but as far as volume, it's one of the most productive ways for us to get food out to the community.

The price of food, like many things, has risen. We’ve seen a spike in prices at the places where we purchase food to supplement our donation supply. The dynamics that ensure throughput from farm to table have shifted, and as a result, people are paying more for their basket of groceries. The need for our work is as important, if not more, than it’s ever been.

Moving into 2022, Forgotten Harvest is making some big changes. Through our “Solutions That Nourish Campaign,” we’re consolidating our locations and moving the epicenter of our operations into one new facility in Oak Park. This innovative food distribution and volunteer center is nearly 2.5 times the size of our current headquarters. This space will not only allow us to increase our productivity and efficiency, but to also reshape our system to include a touch point from donation pick-up to delivery. 

Soon, we plan to be able to deliver a curated and equitable mix of everything we get on a daily basis to everyone we serve. Through our new data-based approach, we hope to provide families with not just a part of the solution, but the whole solution. For us, this means there's a healthy, nutritious, wholesome meal that actually quenches the thirst of hunger. This project, this turnaround for us, everything we've been doing, has been to meet that end.

To be able to do this work, our organization continues to rely on the help of volunteers. Before COVID-19, Forgotten Harvest was working six days a week (we’re now at five), catering to two volunteer groups a day that averaged 30 to 45 people. In 2020, corporate groups disappeared overnight. We went from bringing in volunteers with a net, to a hook and bait, one at a time.

Luckily, people responded. Heroes in our community stepped up and revealed themselves. The donations that came in, and the people who came to volunteer, will always be an indelible reminder to me of the grit that is Metro Detroit, and the deep heart people in our community really do have for service and serving other people.

Though some of our volunteer groups are coming back, this is an area where we continue to need help. We have a range of opportunities available, and are committed to the safety of both our volunteers and workforce.

As a leader, these past two years have been a very humbling experience for me because I haven't had perfect days. There were days when I was weak, and had to lean on somebody else. I've experienced loss through this, just like everyone. And when you're blindsided by the Mack Truck in your life, and your head is still ringing, but you're on a stage that only fits your two feet, and you’ve got to perform, you really begin to appreciate the people who’ve come before you.

I’m immensely grateful for the support that everybody has given to Forgotten Harvest. I want you to know that it’s extremely important to me, and to our whole team, that we get this right.

Kirk Mayes is the CEO of Forgotten Harvest. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.