A smarter food security systemQ&A with Kirk Mayes: Nonprofit Journal Project

Kirk Mayes is the outgoing CEO of Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue organization headquartered in Oak Park.

You moved to your new Oak Park facility in May. How it the new space working out?

We moved to a new facility to enable us to change our operating model, which is basically evolving from what I would describe as just-in-time delivery model where we work with a number of partners within the food service business, whether it's farmers or retailers or manufacturers, to get the food and then turn it around and give it right back to people in the community the same day.

In our new, developing model, we will be bringing the food back from the different supply chain partnerships to mix everything so that we can send it back out in unitized loads. These will not only fit the traffic flow for our community-based partners, but also allow us to give people enough, not just a poundage amount, but also enough diversity in what people can take home, thus reducing food insecurity.

When do you think the new model will be put into action?

There's a small portion of our community partners right now that are getting mixed loads. We've been working on just that since we've been in the building, along with moving our whole team and dealing with the new facility and other aspects of change. I would say our team is 15 to 20 percent into integrating agencies into the new model. And we're currently in final conversations with an outside partner to help accelerate the pace of that turnaround. Once we have our process in place, and we have everybody integrated, we'll be looking to implement automation and maybe even robotics to help make sure it's as efficient as possible.

You can use robotics when you have a different mix coming in every day?

We're looking at the process, but also the systems that can be used – any number of mixes of AI systems that are cut and built for what we're trying to actually get done, plus robotics and conveyor belt systems. I'm not necessarily saying robotic arms that are in a manufacturing space, but there are ways to mechanize parts of the process to make it more efficient and effective and make an impact on the community.

Data is also important in informing how we make decisions about where food goes and how much is needed to serve our community. Having a warehouse with added capabilities for us to figure where the different foods are coming from, because we deal with so many different partners and everybody has UPC codes. It's a challenge to figure out how to universalize so many different things that come from different places that are pretty much given to us by hand. So, we're doing the work inside, creating a process that will help revolutionize or at least evolve the way that food rescue is actually done.

As a food rescue organization, has the increased cost of food with inflation impacted Forgotten Harvest?

Yes, it absolutely has. We're running into two things. One: the cost of food; money doesn't buy as much food anymore. Two, supply chain issues; there's less food in the system. There's also more need because people are feeling the actual weight and pressure of the increasing cost of food. Looking at the rising cost of inflation overall, food is one of the most hefty components.

For instance, we're looking at Thanksgiving season and for the first time, for as long as I've been here, but probably much longer than that, Forgotten Harvest doesn't expect to give out turkeys this year. Not only is there a shortage in turkeys in the market, they're more expensive.

We decided that the money spent for one event to have turkeys would be better off stretched over the course of the year. It gives you appreciation for how the overall impact of rising cost impacts our decision making and how it actually affects the way our mission is exercised.

As you move on personally to new opportunities, what are you hoping most for Forgotten Harvest and its role here in southeast Michigan in addressing food insecurity?

I hope we continue with the strategic plan we have in place, and I'm confident that we will, to take the organization to another level of maturity in the overall lifespan of a nonprofit organization.

I also expect that, because of the way we're using data in order to understand the experience that people are going through, we’ll continue making the best decisions for people in the community. There is a possibility based on our vision and the willingness to dig deeper, to use food insecurity and hunger as a core data point or key indicator in quality life measures for southeast Michigan.

We're well-positioned influentially with our state partners. We have a voice that's being heard. There's no reason for us not to be able to use that to advance the systems and infrastructure that prevent people from having to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

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.