For the first time in two decades, a mainstay for free, nutritious food distribution has the space to double its impact – and some of the Detroit agencies relying on it say the need is dire.
Forgotten Harvest began moving into a 78,000-square-foot space at 15000 W. Eight Mile in Oak Park in February. The move gives the organization access to nearly 50,000 more square feet and millions more pounds of food capacity. It intends to double its food capacity by 2028.
That growth is expected to have a critical impact in Detroit where Forgotten Harvest has 89 food pantry partners and an estimated 39% of the city’s residents experience food insecurity. It comes as some long-time partner groups are noticing an increase in need in the community.
“We have seen about a 30% increase in our numbers since the beginning of this year,” said Mary Williams, executive board member at Twelfth Street Food Pantry. “The need is tremendous and Forgotten Harvest is key in addressing this need.”
Twelfth Street is among 89 partners that Forgotten Harvest has in Detroit, including several mobile food pantry locations, like the Body of Christ International and Gompers/Brightmoor Alliance.
Williams said that her northwest Detroit food pantry has been partnering with Forgotten Harvest for at least two decades, getting half of their food supply from the organization each month.
Of the residents Twelfth Street serves, 94% have incomes less than $1,200 a month, Williams told BridgeDetroit. And the number of people visiting the pantry is increasing, Williams said, due to inflation, COVID-19, and other factors.
“We get reports from people over and over again – if it wasn’t for this pantry, they would not have heat in their home or electricity, or even a roof over their heads because bills are really so high now, especially right now,” Williams said. “They cannot afford to buy basic foods. They just don’t have the income for it.”
A lack of grocery stores in the city, not owning a car or not being able to rely on transportation, and recent food inflation all have contributed to Detroit’s food insecurity rates, which is four times higher than the federal rate.
Kirk Mayes, chief executive officer of Forgotten Harvest, said the group works with pantry partners throughout Metro Detroit and the expansion was necessary to serve more people.
Mayes told BridgeDetroit that with its new setup the food rescue organization will be able to help thousands more Metro Detroiters, and increase the nutritional variety of what they’re giving out. One part of addressing food insecurity, Mayes said, is providing a greater variety of food items to residents in need, so they go home with whole, balanced meals, and not just supplemental items.
The estimated impact of all of the changes, he said, is an additional 55 million pounds of food per year.
Forgotten Harvest broke ground on its new building in 2020, using $17 million that it raised. It’s the first new development in two decades for the organization that was founded in 1990 to fight hunger and waste. Throughout southeast Michigan, Forgotten Harvest works with 200 food pantries and shelters overall and serves more than 610,000 children, families, and seniors by rescuing and redistributing food that would have otherwise been wasted.
Before opening its new site, Forgotten Harvest was spread across multiple buildings at different locations and was leasing administrative and cold storage space. Now, it’s all combined at the Eight Mile building that the organization owns. Upstairs are administrative offices. Downstairs is the warehouse, cold and frozen storage space, and 15 truck docks.
Before, there was limited space to repack and sort items and only two truck docks for the entire 37 truck fleet, which also limited capacity.
Trucks would pick up surplus food at a few grocery stores and distribute it directly to partner pantries, resulting in a limited variety of items. Now, Mayes said, the trucks can bring the food back to the warehouse to be sorted and repackaged for each family.
“Taking this complex challenge of getting a bunch of unknown donations of food in multiple categories on a daily basis and figuring out the best way to equitably redistribute that to everybody in Metro Detroit involves us having to bring it back to a centralized location,” Mayes said.
With more space, the organization can also host more volunteers, which is an integral part of its operations. Volunteers come out to the site four days per week to repack food into boxes for families in need. At most, there had been 15 volunteers per shift. Now, the group can bring in 40 volunteers, and the warehouse can accommodate groups upwards of 100 people.
George Gomez of Royal Oak started volunteering during the onset of COVID-19. For the last two years, he has volunteered with Forgotten Harvest three days a week, helping to hand out food directly to residents at a mobile pop-up in Oak Park. He also helps repackage food in the warehouse.
“I do the pop ups where you get to actually meet some of the folks and recognize they’re everyday people that just need a little bit of assistance right now,” Gomez said.
As a retired employee of Detroit Edison, now DTE, Gomez said volunteering helps him out too, to feel more purpose in his life.
“It’s nice to be part of a team and that’s really what they make you feel like,” he said. “It’s been a joy to continue doing this for so long. It’s not really been a chore as much as somewhere I look forward to going to.”
Williams noted for Detroit, the lack of grocery stores and an abundance of convenience stores selling junk food, are barriers for the residents that her pantry serves.
But Forgotten Harvest, she said, allows Twelfth Street’s pantry to offer a wide variety of healthy items to Detroiters. The pantry gets most of its meat supply from Forgotten Harvest, as well as fresh produce, dairy, and cereal, among other items.
“Just about anything that a family would need to keep them going we’re getting from Forgotten Harvest,” Williams said.
In addition to addressing food insecurity, the organization’s work also has a positive impact on the environment.
In the United States, up to 40% of all food is wasted, accounting for a significant portion of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. In Detroit, that would mean an estimated 125 million pounds of food is wasted each year. Once it’s sent to landfills food decomposes, creating methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, which contributes to climate change.
Last year, Forgotten Harvest rescued more than 51 million pounds of food, which is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from powering more than 9,000 homes for a year.
Forgotten Harvest is one of several locations in Metro Detroit working to address food waste, including Make Food Not Waste and Gleaners Community Food Bank as well as multiple composting initiatives.
Beyond avoiding food waste emissions, Forgotten Harvest is looking to add electric vehicles in the next few years. Already, they are a part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s clean diesel program.
“We’ve progressively, over the years, been working on reducing the carbon footprint from our fleet,” Mayes said.
As for the main former facility on Greenfield Road in Oak Park, the group is looking to repurpose it to further its mission.
“We’re beginning the conversation and envisioning how we could turn that location into a potential distribution site that would be a combination of a client choice pantry, and potentially someplace that we can invite other social service partners,” he said, like social workers, or a health clinic.
The client choice pantry would resemble a grocery store, Mayes said, “so people can actually self-select when it’s convenient for them to go get food assistance, instead of going to that one place in their community on only one day a week, for a few hours.”
Changes to the Greenfield site are expected in 2023, Mayes told BridgeDetroit.
The new building is just two doors down from the office Mayes used for a nonprofit he started in 2001. The nonprofit, Village Gardeners, helped increase the capacity of block clubs in Detroit.
As a born-and-raised Detroiter that has long been committed to serving Detroit residents, he is extremely proud of the organization’s growth and where it is today.
During the onset of COVID and rising rates of food insecurity, Mayes said he’s proud that Forgotten Harvest has met the challenge.
“I don’t know one person who walked away without being served. Not one,” he said. “We think about people who depend on us, we provide the strength they need sometimes when it’s hard, and we do it every day. And they trust that we’re going to be there.”