Before dawn on October 29, I joined Food Forward founder Rick Nahmias and Wholesale Recovery Manager, Luis Yepiz, on a tour of the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. This open-air market was built in the 1980s, replacing a century-old facility that serviced horses and buggies. Now about 30 vendors, many third- and fourth-generation, operate wholesale docks, with larger warehouses elsewhere. More importantly, several vendors donate excess produce to Food Forward, a North Hollywood-based charity whose mission is to rescue and donate local produce that would otherwise go to waste. Backyard fruit picks and recovery from local farmers markets have been vital, but the bulk of produce now comes from produce market recovery efforts, with produce going to local food pantries and helping feed over over 1 million hungry Southern Californians each year. This sojourn allowed me (and other Food Forward supporters) to better understand how produce market recovery works.
L.A. Wholesale Produce Market is a fairly new initiative that’s been a game-changer for Food Forward and hungry Angelenos. Yepiz walks the market on weekdays starting from 3-4 a.m. to coordinate pick-ups with donors. Last August, Food Forward upgraded from a borrowed truck to a vehicle that carries away 15,000 pounds of produce per day, 2-6 times per day. Incredibly, there’s so much excess food as part of systemic waste that Food Forward still has to turn down pick-up requests. Generally, a lot of produce is sold on consignment.
Thankfully, the eco-friendly tide seems to be turning. Now the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market partners with a waste management company to collect recyclables, compostables and landfill, though there’s still room for improvement.
Yepiz said that this old school process requires slapping backs and saying hello daily. Nahmias added, “If we didn’t come for three days, we’d be out of business.”
Produce markets donors do receive a tax credit for giving excess produce to Food Forward, but the main motivation for vendors is to save on waste removal fees.
On the day I visited, Food Forward anticipated three loads, mostly organic ginger, 80,000 pounds total. The surplus varies, depending on the season. For example, in February, there’s a surplus of romaine hearts and cabbage.
Yepiz and and Food Forward driver Felipe Maldonado review produce daily. 80% of the produce has to be good for them to take it to food banks. Nahmias said, “We can’t be a garbage dump.”
Nahmias said, “2 million people are in hunger in this area. It kills me…the problem is distribution.” The goal is to “Feed the top of the pyramid and let it redistribute.” Hopefully other organizations step up to save exceed food from waste, or Food Forward accumulates enough resources to increase their efforts.