Manager of Food Forward’s Wholesale Recovery Program
By Olivia Groell
August 4, 2020
Luis Yepiz is on a mission to ensure that “those in need get what they need to be fully functional people in society.” Luis works tirelessly to feed food insecure communities every day as the Manager of Food Forward’s Wholesale Recovery Program. Food Forward is a food rescue organization that distributes fruits and vegetables to food assistance agencies in eight Southern California counties. However, the history and development of this organization, as well as Luis’s story, are much more intricate than meets the eye. I had the opportunity to speak with Luis on July 10th amid the hustle and bustle of his exceptionally busy work days, to learn more about his background and its convergence with Food Forward.
Luis first told me about the inception of Food Forward in 2009 and its Founder and Executive Director, Rick Nahmias. Rick had noticed an abundance of oranges going to waste in the LA area, where they had been grown in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He began to organize a group of volunteers to round up oranges and deliver this fresh fruit to food banks. This initiative marks the beginning of the Backyard Harvesting program, which still exists today. Luis said that in the first year, the group collected 100,000 pounds of fruit. As the organization grew and after it became a 501c3 organization, they eventually established two new programs: the Farmers Market Recovery program and the Wholesale Produce Market Recovery program. Luis now categorized Food Forward as the “largest food recovery organization in the LA area” and “one of largest in the US”—the organization provides food to about 1,800 agencies.
Luis’s journey to Food Forward is a detailed and fascinating one. Luis is the grandson of two farmers, and his father was a truck driver and mechanic, so he grew up around the agricultural and truck industries. He said that he started “volunteering straight out of high school.” For several years, he volunteered for a “journalistically independent” radio station called KPFK where he was “exposed to many social issues,” one being hunger. Luis then began volunteering with food banks, sparking his interest in food rescue and helping food insecure communities. He also volunteered with the South Central Farmers in LA and eventually began working as a volunteer at a “small food bank.” One day, a driver who picked up food and delivered it to the food bank wasn’t able to carry out a delivery, so Luis, a skilled driver, executed the delivery. He recalled driving to the LA Wholesale Market, “collecting donations,” and driving the “truck full of produce” back to the food bank. He continued consistently working for the food bank and eventually began doing “food procuring.”
Through Craigslist, he discovered Food Forward, which was only four years old at the time. He was hired to work part-time as a manager and to serve as a driver for deliveries. He was already aware of “many food recovery agencies'' in the area, which helped him and Food Forward reach more communities in need. After three months, Luis took a full-time position at Food Forward. He works in the Wholesale Recovery Program, which moved “4.3 million pounds in the first year” and “kept growing” from there, according to Luis. He described how exciting it was when Food Forward launched its original campaign to purchase a truck and was successful. Now the organization has four trucks, four drivers, and last year they moved nearly 25 million pounds through the Wholesale Recovery Program alone! In total, Food Forward moved 26.5 million pounds last year, across their three programs.
Luis said that COVID-19 has had a large impact on his community, leaving many “without a job” and unable to access “basic needs.” He described pride in his capability to help his “organization meet these needs” that have grown as a result of the pandemic. Luis thinks of food insecurity as a “systematic problem” and a “social disaster.” He aims to “correct a wrong,” the wrong being food insecurity, that has existed for “over 100 years.” Luis’s aspiration is to “create bridges between those in need and the agricultural system.” Luis, who is even more impressively an award winning poet, writer, and opera singer, has devoted his life to fighting hunger and serves as a role model for us at The Farmlink Project. We are grateful to have the opportunity to partner with Luis at Food Forward.
You can learn more about Luis here.