“Everyone eats and everyone should eat with dignity. Food Forward helps that happen…We ALL have something to share – money, time, clothing, etc. – at Food Forward our currency is food. We’d like to reframe how people see abundance in their own lives – and what they can do with it to help others.” 

                         Rick Nahmias, founder, Food Forward



Food Forward is a Southern-California nonprofit organization that “rescues” fresh local produce. The organization’s mission is to “harvest food, fight hunger and build community.” The volunteer-driven organization is dedicated to food justice and eliminating hunger in communities. Food Forward organizes gleaning activities – called “picks” or “harvests” – on private properties (including homes and commercial farms), in public spaces and at farmers and wholesale markets to “recover” produce. What they collect is donated to “direct-service agencies” that feed the hungry.

The UC Food Observer caught up with Food Forward’s founder and executive director, Rick Nahmias, and Jim Mangis, who serves as the branch manager for the organization’s operation in Ventura County.

Rick Nahmias is an award-winning professional photographer, well-known for his work documenting diversity and marginalized communities. He has published two books, including The Migrant Project. He also is a professionally trained cook and an accomplished speaker.

Jim Mangis’ work has focused on community building, conserving resources and feeding the hungry. He started building youth conservation corps in the 1970s. He worked in community recycling for many years in Central California. He also has worked with food banks in Tulare and Ventura County (FoodShare). He is the owner of a new business, Good Tilth Organic Nursery, in Ventura.

All photos provided by Food Forward and Rick Nahmius.

Q: Rick, what inspired you to found Food Forward?

A: The inspiration was multipronged. I was inspired by my work around “The Migrant Project,” which enabled me to document the lives of agricultural workers in California. I was stunned to learn that the people who feed us are often unable to afford to feed themselves. It’s a cruel irony. I was also inspired by the 2008 election to engage more. And I was also angered by that election, which resulted in me having my marriage nullified (by California’s Proposition 8).

I was living in Valley Glen, in the San Fernando Valley, an area that formerly had many walnut and orange groves. I’d be out walking with my dog and see fruit on the ground, over and over. And I just thought … “there’s no need for this.”

Bob, a retired One Generation client, stops by their seniors center up to three times a week and makes a point of enjoying Food Forward fruit whenever he can, calling it "top notch!"
Bob, a retired One Generation client, stops by the senior center up to three times a week and makes a point of enjoying Food Forward fruit whenever he can, calling it “top notch!”

I didn’t have an agenda to create a nonprofit. I was lucky enough to have a handful of fun friends who also believed in this … and we began harvesting trees. These people were reliable, professional, fun to be with and we built a small family around our collective work. It’s grown exponentially. It was the right idea and the right time. People were and are ready to give back. After the economy went south, people have been very much wanting to give back.

Q: Rick, what are your aspirations for Food Forward?

A: My aspirations for the organization are similar to those I started out with. I want to create a holistic organization around food justice that has entry points for any one at any age in any situation. You can be a farmer, a farm worker, an academic, a secretary … anyone who is interested in how we eat, how we can eat better and how we can help others eat better. I like that we have a program, activity or event that any one could access. There is an amazing diversity among the people doing the work and joining in the community.

On the flip side, one of things I’m proudest of is the diversity of the agencies that receive what we harvest. Between direct and indirect relationships we have more than 300 agencies distributing the food we glean, across the span of six counties. The range of people who access what we glean is amazing … from low-income LGBT communities to Special Olympics participants to farm workers in Piru.

Everyone eats and everyone should eat with dignity. Food Forward helps that happen.

Again, this has been the right time, right place and the right population we’re working with. We’ve now had 10,000 volunteers come through our programs … some are one-time volunteers, but many return to help again and again. I go back to our organization’s tagline … Harvest Food … Fight Hunger … Build Community. We are a solutions-based nonprofit. One that is based on the concept of sharing and giving what we have. We ALL have something to share – money, time, clothing, etc. – at Food Forward our currency is food. We’d like to reframe how people see abundance in their own lives – and what they can do with it to help others.

Q: Rick, what one change would you make in the food system if you were given the power?

A: It would be to instill a sense of value and respect for the food we eat in every person on this planet. We would all become intentional eaters.

Q: Jim, you coordinate operations for Food Forward in Ventura County, which is a leading agricultural producer. Can you tell me a little about your work organizing gleaning activities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties?

A: Food Forward is really a premier gleaning organization in Southern California. I manage the Ventura County branch and also coordinate some activity in Santa Barbara County.

Credit: Food Forward, Rick Nahmias.
Credit: Food Forward, Rick Nahmias.

This week is pretty typical. Thursday, we’re pulling carrots at Phil McGrath’s farm on the Oxnard Plain. We’ll have 8-10 folks there. We’re doing peaches in a backyard up towards Ojai. Saturday, we’re picking oranges in Camarillo; that’s a residence with 40 trees. Sunday we’ll be doing grapefruit at an equestrian center in Somis. Again, this is in many ways a typical week for harvests … ranging from backyard, to orchard to commercial orchards and farms. Later this month we’ll be gleaning from the Churchill’s Orchard.  After Lisa [Brenneis] and Jim [Churchill] are done with their commercial harvest, we come in. I feel privileged when people like the Jim, Lisa and Phil invite us into their livelihood. What we do is built on collaboration and relationships.

In total Food Forward has passed the 10 million pound mark of cumulative food rescue. This is not a fad … this is a significant activity.

Q: Where do you find volunteers?

A: We get a really wide spectrum of volunteers. A lot of nonprofits depend on retired people. At Food Forward we also get a lot of young volunteers. We get families with little kids all the way up to retired people. Girl Scouts, school groups, college students … a wide range of people. We always need more volunteers, and it is really easy to participate. Just go to our website and sign up for the events that interest you, and fit your schedule. And then enjoy your first Food Forward harvest.

Credit: Food Forward. Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing distribution.

Our website is our operational hub. Rick and the operations team have developed interactive and effective ways of communicating and recruiting volunteers online. So maybe someone will read this blog post, click on the link and look at our calendar of events. You complete a liability waiver and application and then you’re registered. You receive emails, reminders, event information and even a thank you via our website.

A typical pick is about two-thirds new volunteers, one-third returning volunteers. We have episodic volunteers, but many of those turn into longer-term volunteers. Families fit in so well at Food Forward activities. It’s not always easy to find social action activities that the whole family can do together. The little ones clean up branches or fruit as it goes into boxes. There are all sorts of things children can do in a pick.

We picked some beautiful fruit in Fillmore a couple of weeks ago. We had a group of kids from a charter school and there was also a family with two young adults. I watched these two young adults become mentors to the elementary school students during the pick. It was special.

Q: Jim, what happens with the food you’ve recovered post-gleaning?

A: Post-gleaning in Ventura and Santa  Barbara County … well the entire pick is all about connecting with property owners and volunteers and immediately connecting with emergency food network. We don’t need coolers or a warehouse. All of what we harvest goes to where it’s needed, which is often the nearest pantry. So for example, if we harvest in Moorpark, we might take the harvest directly to Catholic Charities. We don’t give an agency more than they think they can distribute. We have a whole network of receiving agencies, and of course, we work closely with Food Share and  Food Bank Santa Barbara County.

One of the many things I love about Food Forward is this ethos of dignity and the quality of the food. We use beautiful cases donated by International Paper (it’s the world’s largest paper manufacturer); but they also donate oranges from the trees on their site. It’s the notion of first fruits: the fruit we deliver to pantries is fresher than most of us could get at the store. It’s going right from the field or tree into the hands of those at the pantry. Each of these harvests becomes a community event in and of itself.

This food is a gift of respect to these families. Everybody deserves the best.

Q: Jim, what inspired you to begin working with Food Forward?

A: I’ve been working with people in gardens and growing things for a long time. In the last year, I started an organic nursery … I just am in touch with growing things. One of my specialties has become making wonderful potting soil and helping people with edible gardening.

It was a natural thing given my background in food banking and working on civic food issues. I went on a couple of Food Forward harvests … the moment that hooked me was noticing all these very different people showing up to a harvest. The pick leader was a retired Air Force officer, the event was held on an estate in Montecito and we had a Girl Scout troop, a Chicano studies college class and their professor … these were urban students. There was a family, some other college students, including some international exchange students. It was a big pick … about 30 people. We harvested about 5,000 pounds of oranges that day. The conversations, the awareness, the relationships that were created around these goals for harvesting food to fight hunger and build community … it was astounding.

That moment for me was when I experienced the special spirit that is Food Forward, a light, inclusive, grassroots, and giving spirit.

Credit: Food Forward. Teen volunteers.
Credit: Food Forward. Teen volunteers.

Q: Do you provide explicit education about hunger issues to your volunteers?

A: Each pick is an educational activity. We have a “circle up” at the beginning … we talk about where we are. So at McGrath’s farm or Churchill’ orchard, the farmers will come out and talk about their operations. We also use that opportunity to get to know one another. We try to give a bit of information about the food we’re harvesting and where it’s going and what that means. So we provide information about the food network … I ask our pick leaders to tell a story or two about the people who will receive this food. It’s what makes the experience more meaningful for the volunteer and we’re careful not to be overbearing … picks only last about two hours. So if it’s a big job, we get more people, but we keep the pick length about the same.

Q: Jim, I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?

A: What I would change would be in Ventura County. I would wave the magic wand so that the food being produced here was being used in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. I’d like to see a system that bypassed this craziness of so much of our food going overseas and us shipping so much food in.

I would also make affordable, unprocessed, fresh food accessible to everyone.

Q: Jim, anything else you’d like to add?

A: A big part of what Food Forward is doing is gleaning farmers markets. We’re starting this fall in Ventura County, but the organization is currently doing more than a dozen farmers markets in Los Angeles County. Gleaning leaders and volunteers go to participating markets and distribute cases to participating vendors. Receiving agencies come and pick up produce. They agree to distribute the food by cooking something with it or distributing it directly to families within 2-3 days. The biggest donor to that effort was Underwood Family Farms in Ventura County … they received a Food Forward award for their contributions.

I also think it’s significant that we can supply some organizations that don’t always fit into the food recovery network. So for example, we might take mandarins and avocados to the veterans home in East Ventura as a gift. Shop Ahoy, a nonprofit that does food shopping for seniors … sometimes we donate produce to them to augment the groceries the seniors purchase. It’s quiet little things that often make a big difference.