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!”

Avery says Food Forward and the markets are a perfect match. “They help us fulfill the city’s sustainability mission. And the market is always trying to do more for the local population. We didn’t have the contacts to start a program on our own, so when Food Forward stepped in, we were thrilled.”

“They make it easy to be generous; it’s so efficient,” says Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who handed over 30 pounds of garlic, estimated at $4 a pound. “I like that we’re helping people right here in our community. We always have food left at the end of the day, and instead of composting it, this great service lets us give it to a good cause. Everybody wins.”

At Step Up on Second, Program Manager Len Lovallo allows Food Forward to leave its cardboard boxes and hand trucks in his storage room between Glean Team collection days because the transitional living facility benefits from the program.

“I run a vocational program for job training in our kitchen, and in our cafe we serve two meals a day, seven days a week,” Lovallo says. “Farmers market donations go beyond what I can get from the food bank, like fresh Brussels sprouts, beets, mushrooms, stuff we incorporate both to feed and teach our clients.”

St. Joseph Center always wanted to connect with local markets to enhance its food pantry. “Produce items are the healthiest and most requested items in our food pantry,” Executive Director Va Lecia Adams says.

But it too lacked the relationships and logistical capacity to sustain such a program. “Food Forward’s ability to network with the farmers and market managers, along with their commitment to packaging the donations for easy pick up made it possible,” she says.

By increasing the amount of produce it offers, Adams estimates, “a weekly visit to our pantry gives our clients food that would cost about $40 at a supermarket.”

“With a median household income of around $1,500, it’s kind of like getting a 10 percent raise,” she adds, leaving money for other essentials like rent and utilities.

So far, Food Forward has harvested and recovered more than 1.3 million pounds of food, primarily from backyard “picks,” or harvests, accomplished by an army of volunteers who hand-collect a variety of fruit and avocados. Additional programs include private estate picks, specially designed “corporate picks” that encourage employee community service, recovering food from distribution hubs, and now the Glean Teams.

In no small part, it’s the upbeat volunteers and the warm relations they’ve established with the farmers that make the Farmers Market Recovery Program such a success. Example? Chris at Rancho La Vina’s walnut oil booth jokingly proposed to the effervescent Mary.

She smiles and says, “We try to keep it light at the market, but food rescue is a serious mission. At our core, the Glean Teams are food security advocates, who believe access to good food is a basic human right.”

Statistics tell the story in numbers: In three and a half months in 2012 across all markets, 49 total collections resulted in 54,534 pounds of produce gleaned, donated by 157 farmers, serving 22 agencies, benefiting approximately 31,600 people, providing 71,300 meals, courtesy of 36 dedicated Glean Team volunteers.

And that was at just three markets.

Which leads to Food Forward’s “ask.”

“Now with four markets all across the city, and five scheduled to launch, we really need more volunteers,” Baldwin says. “If we’ve done this much good so far, imagine how much more we could do!”