I am thankful for Food Gatherers

Thanksgiving is a day of rejoicing - of gratitude for a plentiful harvest. At least in my house, there is a bit of a frantic energy around the holiday - “Who is in charge of getting a good turkey?” “How many high chairs are we going to need?” “Can everyone eat a shrimp appetizer?” There are people in our community not having these discussions. Their Thanksgiving dinners will be chosen for them. They do not have the resources to host it themselves. It is these individuals, our neighbors, Food Gatherers works everyday to support.

Borden - Food Gatherers front entrance

Thanksgiving is a day dedicated to thinking about and eating food. For some their next meal is not a source of excitement or anticipation - it is a nagging pit of potential despair. As Mary Schlitt, Director of Development, tells me “the need is always constant, it is daily.” Food Gatherers works to alleviate the daily torment of hunger for our Washtenaw County neighbors - and I was recently able to learn more about this ballast in our food community.

When Food Gatherers moved into their new location in 2003 they choose “to be outrageous” with their mascot - the carrot - says a smiling Mary Schlitt. In front of the very light and bright food warehouse are eight HUGE carrots - a beacon of cheerfulness as one approaches their building on Carrot Way.

It is important to be cheerful as one works to change the very sobering food security statistics in our community. There is a 35% rise in demand in aid over last year, Washtenaw County has the highest cost of living in the state, and Michigan is mired in 15.3% unemployment.

Food Gatherers started as a food rescue organization in 1988 with one staff member and a borrowed vehicle. Now over 5000 volunteers work to transport an average of 7 tons of food a day in their fleet of five trucks. I am told by Eric Marria, Volunteer Coordinator, “many of our full time staff started out as volunteers.”

Borden - Volunteers at Delonis Center

Food Gatherers is able to receive food from USDA and large corporate donors as Washtenaw County’s food bank. Feeding America is a domestic program that works as a clearinghouse - matching donations and distributing them across the America’s network of food banks. Based on the demographics in Washtenaw County, Food Gatherers is able to receive a certain amount of food. They are charged a nominal fee for shipping.

Primarily, Food Gatherers is a food rescue organization. The majority of food (70%) comes from over 300 local businesses donating food they are no longer able to sell. It is collected and redistributed to over 150 partners - such as Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels, the Ozone House, and the Community Kitchen at the Delonis Center. As Eric Marria pointed out to me, “we live in a very generous community, but it is not good business practice to have extra food at the end of the day to donate or get rid of - as inventory and tracking systems get smarter and better - there is going to be less and less supply. We are going to have to buy more.”

According to the 2009 Food Gatherers’ Food Security Plan in the last four years 200% more food has been purchased to serve the partner agencies as demand has outpaced supply. “Part of the reason we started the garden was because we need some free food,” shared Eric. They broke ground on the Gathering Farm in the spring and produced over 21,000 pounds of produce. A portion of that produce went to Scott Rouback, who works in the Community Kitchen, and made over 195 gallons of tomato sauce - “for six weeks all I did was make tomato sauce, I loved it.” My 24 jars in the basement are in awe of such an accomplishment.

There are several ways you can help. Cold hard cash is always welcome - it is easily convenient, lightweight, and can go exactly where it is needed. Rockin’ for the Hungry, their largest outdoor food drive, is coming up from December 2-6 outside Busch’s on South Main. In addition to donating food you can donate your time.

You will meet all sorts of people when you volunteer - some have been donating their time for years, some are students working on their community service hours, there are shelter residents, lawyers, writers, elected representatives, and, even, me. I started volunteering in the Community Kitchen last September. I love being in a commercial kitchen, all of my home appliances have been supersized. The main skillet is 4 feet by 3 feet and holds food for 300 people - as Scott Rouback shared with me, “it is more fun than a snow blower!” Every week I looked forward to seeing the clients and the volunteers. However I must add this caveat - donating your time may result in friendships, beware.

Borden - Food Gatherers door handle

Food Gatherers “exists to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in our community.” As I read their mission the hopeful “perfect world” part of me feels it expresses a clarion call for their own extinction. I would miss my volunteering lunches, the beautiful warehouse, the whimsical carrot, and the amazing people who work there. Though, until that perfect day comes, people are hungry today, and we can help.

As I raise a glass in gratitude this Thanksgiving I will think of Food Gatherers - and of my neighbors, who have one fewer meal to worry about because of their work.

(For more pictures of Food Gatherers, watch this video they made over the summer!)

Here is the link to the article on annarbor.com!