Forgotten Harvest 2.0

The food services agency in Oak Park is turning to technology to boost deliveries.


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COO Mike Spicer and CEO Kirk Mayes of Forgotten Harvest in Oak Park are working to provide more complete meals to needy people in metro Detroit by gathering better data.

Over nearly three decades, Forgotten Harvest in Oak Park has been rescuing unused food and distributing it to hungry people. In 2017 alone, the nonprofit grew, gathered, and distributed more than 45 million pounds of food, much of it otherwise destined for landfills.

Forgotten Harvest is recognized among the most efficient operations of its kind in the nation. So why is CEO Kirk Mayes undertaking the organization’s biggest makeover in history? “In our world, it’s OK to equate poundage to meals because there’s been this generalized USDA idea that a meal weighs about a pound,” Mayes says. “If we give a person a pound of onions, we gave them a meal. Except we didn’t.”

On a given day, Forgotten Harvest collects 300 different food items, but its inability to create enough complete meals leaves many of its recipients in various stages of food insecurity. Pantry-goers who must figure out how to feed a family on mostly tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash still worry where their next meal is coming from.

To address this, Mayes and his team are tearing down and rebuilding the $86 million operation. Eventually, even its 250 receiving agencies will be asked to do more — possibly acquire some of the food they give away and find needy people in their communities who may travel elsewhere to seek free food. The changes will roll out slowly because many receiving agencies are focused on social needs other than food distribution.

“We’re asking our clients for better data to help us better serve them,” says Mike Spicer, COO of Forgotten Harvest, who was a 20-year executive at Ryder Logistics. “We’re taking a business mindset into the food bank (and) human services world.”

Spicer’s biggest task over the next two years is merging the supply chains from grocers like Kroger and Meijer, along with produce from its farming partners. Forgotten Harvest also is exploring new ways of delivering food, such as offering flash-frozen items that are perfectly edible but miss certain manufacturer specifications for cut or color.

In addition, the organization, founded in 1990, plans to capture more cooked foods from sources like Little Caesars Pizza, Comerica Park, and the Capital Grille in Troy, which donate unserved leftovers.

When the new model is in place, Spicer says Forgotten Harvest could boost the number of “complete plates” it provides by 90 percent, based on the MyPlate.gov approach of “Right Food, Right Place, Right Quantity, Right Time.”

The full meal program couldn’t come at a better time. Metro Detroit remains 60 million to 70 million pounds short of meeting its annual demand for food. Last year, 90 million pounds of food were distributed by Forgotten Harvest and Gleaner’s Community Food Bank in Detroit.

Analytics from Data Driven Detroit, funded by the Kresge Foundation in Troy, showed 11 communities within Forgotten Harvest’s three-county coverage area were being overlooked, including Dearborn Heights, Romulus, Sterling Heights, Fraser, Wixom, and Novi, while hundreds of agencies are on Forgotten Harvest’s waiting list.

Today, Forgotten Harvest’s 35 trucks travel 500,000 miles a year in metro Detroit to gather food from grocers for same-day distribution to social service agencies, while its farm in Fenton and several Canadian orchards grow produce that’s inspected and sorted by volunteers at its Oak Park warehouse before being trucked to food pantries.

“We’re aware that we can’t do this by ourselves,” Mayes says. “We need the partnership of everybody in our community that has a stake in this.” 

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