Kat Chung and Mary Baldwin collect a box of produce from Kevin Cooper of Mud Creek Ranch toward the end of a farmers market.
Kat Chung and Mary Baldwin collect a box of produce from Kevin Cooper of Mud Creek Ranch toward the end of a farmers market.

Standing amidst the bounty of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, a raggedly dressed man with a tired face holds up a tattered cardboard sign: “Hungry, please help.”

Just half a block south is Step Up on Second, one of three local social service agencies that could offer him fresh produce from the market, brought in just that day.

On this particular winter Wednesday, 26 labeled boxes containing 554 pounds of apples, citrus, salad greens, kale, squash, garlic, turnips, cucumbers, and radishes have been collected by friendly volunteers wearing hats and aprons that say “Food Forward.”

They’re members of “Glean Teams” representing the four-year-old nonprofit organization Food Forward, whose new Farmers Market Recovery Program collects fresh produce donated by the farmers at the end of the market day. [Full disclosure: I'm a member of Food Forward's advisory board.] Here in Santa Monica, it’s distributed to Step Up on Second, The Clare Foundation, and St. Joseph Center in Venice, Calif. Some of their clients are homeless, have a mental illness, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol -- many times all three.

Santa Monica’s Wednesday and Sunday markets are two of four area markets participating in this new venture, which is on track to serve nine markets by its one-year anniversary in August. Collections at Mar Vista Farmers Markets begin March 3.

Glean Teams extend the group’s mission: helping to prevent hunger by recovering food that might otherwise go to waste, and donating 100 percent of it to agencies serving those in need.

Today’s Glean Team includes Christine Kwon, who glided up the sidewalk on skates (she recently joined a roller derby team). She’s joined by Kat Thomas, a food blogger and burlesque-dancing aerialist just back from performing at Sundance; and Alex Melinkoff, who runs a landscape business, riding in from Woodland Hills, Calif.

Herding this eclectic crew and a few others is Mary Baldwin, Food Forward’s Farmers Market Recovery Program manager, who joined the organization in August of 2012 and launched the program just two weeks later at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

“We had to create -- and along the way refine -- the collection tracking system,” Baldwin says as she hands out collection kits to the volunteers.

“We needed to put together the infrastructure, reach out to the receiving agencies, find the volunteers, and get acquainted with the farmers,” Baldwin says. “[Santa Monica] Farmers Market Manager Laura Avery introduced us to each of the farmers so we could explain the program. ... At the end of the market, we distribute Food Forward boxes so they don’t have to use their own. If they have extra unsold produce, they’ll fill our box with anything they have to give, and we take care of the picking up, weighing, distributing, and providing tax receipts for their donations."

“As a matter of fact,” Baldwin says, “on that first day, we expected maybe 300 pounds of food, but ended up with more than 1,300!”

“The agencies couldn’t fit it all in their vans,” Avery says with a laugh. “So Food Forward’s Managing Director Meg Glasser, superstar volunteer Anne Burmeister, and Mary put the rest in Meg’s car and drove it to the Downtown Women’s Center. Food had to go to the people who needed it and they were going to make it happen!”