Most people who come to volunteer always leave messy, sweaty and sore, but they leave happy because we can tell them, 'You've provided 20,000 extra meals today,'" Forgotten Harvest farm manager Michael Yancho says. "It's inspiring to see what folks will do for people they don't know."
Yancho grew up on his family's 80-acre farm in Grand Blanc, Mich., where his family grew Christmas trees, landscape trees and vegetables. He started working with Forgotten Harvest in April 2013. Today, Yancho handles everything from fieldwork, plant maintenance and harvesting to planning volunteer schedules, ordering supplies and recordkeeping. Like any farmer, Yancho says the most rewarding aspect of his job is being able to provide farm-fresh vegetables, especially to those who can't feed themselves properly, which is part of the Forgotten Harvest focus.
According to food-industry standards, 1 pound of food is equal to one meal. Last year, Forgotten Harvest, the world's largest fresh-food rescue operation, saved more than 42 million pounds of food, which translates into three meals a day for more than 38,000 people.
HELPING THE HUNGRY
Dr. Nancy Fishman, founder of Forgotten Harvest, saw a need for hunger relief in the metro Detroit area while helping MAZON, a Jewish hunger relief organization, establish partnerships with area temples and synagogues. Fishman noticed local food banks sold items at low cost, but perishable foods were being discarded. So in 1988, she began retrieving perishable foods from bakeries, country clubs and catered events, and delivering it directly to shelters and soup kitchens. In the winter of 1990, an article about Fishman appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. Donors came forward, more people joined her efforts, and Forgotten Harvest began.
The first year's goal was to rescue 1,200 pounds of food. "We reached our goal in six months," Fishman recalls. By their 10th year, Forgotten Harvest supplied 1 million meals in a three-county radius of Detroit.
To sort rescued food, Forgotten Harvest rents a warehouse. "We couldn't take huge pallets of food to a soup kitchen," Fishman explains. "They couldn't use it that way. So we bring it back to the distribution center to sort." The rescued food, both raw and prepared, is packaged and loaded on trucks for distribution. High standards for cleanliness require all volunteers to take a class and be tested in food handling before they are cleared to work at the facility.
In 2012, Forgotten Harvest members met a goal to acquire land for the organization when four area farms provided it with four separate parcels, a total of 37 acres, for growing and harvesting farm-fresh vegetables. In 2013, Forgotten Harvest was able to consolidate its vegetable production when Nora Moroun, a volunteer, came forward with more land.
"We had a family farm with lots of acres," Moroun says. "The idea that I could donate some of the land to Forgotten Harvest seemed like the right thing to do." So, Moroun leased 125 acres of her family's land free of charge to Forgotten Harvest to farm. The ground is used to produce corn, potatoes, carrots, peppers, acorn squash and zucchini.
"Some people don't even know how zucchini or squash grows, so it gives many people an opportunity to learn," Moroun adds.
LEGACY OF GIVING
Moroun's grandmother, the inspiration for her contribution, had a giving heart, as well. "Sometimes as a child, when I would visit the farm, she would open her door to an individual or family that was hungry," Moroun says. "She would ask me to set the table, and she would prepare them a hot meal."
With Moroun's help, Forgotten Harvest grew enough produce for 800,000 meals in the first year alone. Volunteers help plant, cultivate and harvest the crops throughout the growing season. There are even raised beds to allow physically limited volunteers to participate.
Today, Forgotten Harvest continues to provide food free of charge to food banks, and 96 cents of every dollar raised goes to harvesting food, either from the farm or from potential waste, for Detroit's hungry. On the farmland, Forgotten Harvest raised 880,000 pounds of produce in 2013 and increased that to 1.4 million pounds in 2014. In addition, the organization rescued nearly 50 million pounds of food from waste to serve the people of Detroit.
"We're always looking for more donations," Moroun says. "We have a program where you can donate money for a row of crops or things like fuel for the tractor. The most important thing is showing how this concept can happen in so many places, so no one should be hungry. It's almost magical the gifts that are happening at the farm."
Magical it was when a young college intern came to Forgotten Harvest to help the organization update its computer and tracking systems. After some time on the job, the excited intern told his mother what he was working on, and she started to weep. As it turned out, she had once relied on Forgotten Harvest to feed their family. "Here was this young man who was growing up and getting out of poverty because of Forgotten Harvest," Fishman says. "And now he was giving back to the organization."
Forgotten Harvest is currently celebrating its 25th year with 90 employees, 35 trucks and 25,000 volunteers.
For more information, visit www.forgottenharvest.org.
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