A harvest to help end hunger in Detroit

With access to fresh food scarce in urban areas, Forgotten Harvest works to ensure no Detroiter goes hungry.

October 29, 2019

min read

Regina Hartmann is a mother. Above all else – her job in compliance and ethics with Guardian Industries, or her role on the company’s charitable giving team, or her volunteer work – she’s a mom first.

And as a mom, seeing children go hungry, even in her own suburban Detroit community, was too difficult to just stand by and watch.

“I would take my kids to school, and I would see these kids that you knew weren’t getting what they needed to thrive and do their best,” she said. “For kids to not have food and go to school hungry … it’s really important to me that Forgotten Harvest is gathering all of this and giving back to the people that really need it.”

In the metro Detroit area, as in many large U.S. cities, food insecurity is a major issue. It’s a problem that impacts nearly 1.4 million people across Michigan, with children accounting for approximately 350,000 of that figure, and roughly 700,000 residing in Southeast Michigan, in some of the same communities employees of Guardian – a Koch company in the metro Detroit area – also call home.

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“I live in Detroit, so I’ve seen it,” said Guardian employee and Forgotten Harvest volunteer, Gerri Teachey. “I know how difficult it is to get access to fresh fruits and fresh produce. [So] it’s definitely helpful for those who live around me who maybe don’t have vehicles and can’t access other food sources.”

For many, the issue is as much one of accessibility as it is availability. While secondary food outlets (like gas stations and dollar stores) may be plentiful in urban areas, full-service grocery stores carrying fresh, perishable items like produce aren’t as densely populated, and healthier food options are sometimes price prohibitive.

To help address the issue of hunger in the Detroit area, Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue organization rooted in Detroit, works tirelessly to collect unused food items from restaurants and grocery stores with surplus inventory. That food is then sorted, repackaged and redistributed by Forgotten Harvest to more than 250 local organizations, from smaller churches to larger nonprofits, to help feed more than 584,000 people every week.

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“As a food rescue, we oftentimes are not completely sure what we’re going to rescue,” said Rebecca Gade-Sawicki, director of corporate relations with Forgotten Harvest. “It is completely dependent on our retail partners and what’s not selling for them, or what they have a surplus of. [But] we can always guarantee that we will deliver something.”

That’s why Forgotten Harvest also maintains a private farm just over 45 miles away, where the organization supplements its food rescue efforts by growing its own fresh produce. Spread over a hundred acres of Michigan farmland are fields of corn, onions, potatoes, eggplant, squash and more.

“The farm has allowed us to add some variety to what we deliver,” said Gade-Sawicki. “On average, we generally harvest around 800,000 pounds a year. We have made a really conscious change over these last three years to focus on more nutritionally dense foods.”

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To fulfill its mission of “relieving hunger and preventing nutritious waste,” Forgotten Harvest is reliant on manpower from volunteers within the community.

“We started a poll with our Michigan employees to identify the areas they’d like to see us get involved in, and hunger was one of the top causes,” said Paige Coates, corporate communications specialist with Guardian.

This year, employees from Guardian got hands-on to help the cause. On September 23 and 24, more than 100 employees, like Regina, Gerri and Paige, stepped away from the office to help Forgotten Harvest fight food insecurity across the city.

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“Just thinking about the families that we’re impacting, it makes a difference,” said Ashley Lorano, Guardian employee and Forgotten Harvest volunteer. “There are so many families in need, and we take so much for granted … you’re just overwhelmed with gratitude when you think about all that you have and how something as small as a potato can make a huge impact in the lives of others.”

Over two days, Guardian employees volunteered at Forgotten Harvest’s warehouse and farm. On the first day, they donned hair nets and gloves to bag a seemingly endless supply of potatoes and corn, pallet by pallet. The next day, they combed through the fields of Forgotten Harvest Farms, plucking fresh ears of corn into five-gallon buckets and digging up sweet onions straight from the soil.

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In order to deliver this food to its partner organizations, Forgotten Harvest relies on a fleet of 35 delivery trucks, which crisscross the region collecting and delivering food donations. In 2018, the organization and its fleet collected more than 46 million pounds of food. And just this year, Guardian helped raise funds to buy a brand-new truck.

“We use our trucks six days a week to go to multiple places and then turn around and distribute it to those who need it,” said Gade-Sawicki. “It’s just a matter of being able to ensure where that food needs to be picked up and get it to where it is needed.”

As long as the need for nourishment exists in Detroit, these wheels will continue to roll daily, driven by the passion of Forgotten Harvest employees and volunteers. And a year from now, a fresh batch of volunteers from Guardian will be heading out to the warehouse and farm again to help make it possible.

More ways Koch companies support their communities.