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Where does L.A.’s leftover produce go? This group helps get tons to the hungry every day

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Where does L.A.’s leftover produce go? This group helps get tons to the hungry every day

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and the lights are blazing at Food Forward’s Pit Stop warehouse. Big trucks are lining up waiting their turn while forklifts whiz around the loading dock, pulling pallets of donated asparagus, lettuce and strawberries off one truck or pushing boxes of purple potatoes, green beans and heirloom tomatoes onto another headed to needy clients later in the day.

Everything moves fast at Food Forward — a nonprofit devoted to redistributing produce that would otherwise go to waste — because fruits and veggies don’t last. When you’re moving tons of food at the edge of its usefulness — an average of 250,000 pounds or 125 tons every day — no one can afford to dawdle.

Lupe “Papi” Rodriguez uses plastic wrap to stabilize a wobbly pallet of unsold berries, tomatoes and other produce at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, before loading it into his truck bound for Food Forward’s warehouse.

(Jeanette Marantos / Los Angeles Times)

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A crate of mini watermelons from Little Chuys

Mini watermelons are among the wide variety of fruit and vegetables brought into Food Forward’s warehouse.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The whole point of this hustle is to get food that would otherwise be wasted to hunger relief groups, who get the produce for free and must distribute it for free as well, without imposing any rules like listening to prayers, making donations or joining a club. Food Forward works with some 250 nonprofit groups to get it done, serving 13 counties in Southern and Central California along with seven states and tribal lands when there’s too much surplus for regional groups to handle.

So even though it’s dark and cold, Food Forward driver Lupe “Papi” Rodriguez is smiling as he gets ready to pick up pallets of unwanted fruits and veggies from wholesale produce vendors. “I enjoy my work,” said Rodriguez, who drove a produce truck for 20 years before joining Food Forward in 2021. “It’s a beautiful job, because you get to help people too.”

And it all started 15 years ago, when documentary photographer Rick Nahmias was nursing his ailing, elderly dog and a deep disappointment with politics. During their slow walks through his San Fernando neighborhood, Nahmias had lots of time to notice all the unpicked fruit on people’s trees, and consider how he could best proceed in helping the world.

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The year before, Nahmias had worked hard on two political campaigns, to elect Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president and to defeat Proposition 8, a state ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. Obama won, as did Proposition 8. Although the measure was later overturned, in January 2009 Nahmias was still aching. He and his husband had married just three years earlier, and the vote to ban their marriage “was pretty brutal,” he said.

“It felt like total whiplash, and I was so discouraged, I decided, ‘I can’t deal with politics anymore. I’ve got to go do something positive.’ And Food Forward was my way to turn the other cheek.”

It was also the height of the nation’s economic downturn, he said. “We were seeing long lines at food pantries, who didn’t have the storage to handle fresh fruit. These people were being forced to eat Cup of Noodles when just a mile away there were all these beautiful oranges and grapefruits hanging on trees … and I was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”

A man wearing a T-shirt with the words "Share the Abundance" stands in front of a light sculpture

At the Food Forward warehouse, founder and CEO Rick Nahmias poses in front of a sculptural light display created from old fruit harvesting tools, which the organization still uses to glean unwanted fruit from residential trees.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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Two men sit at a conference table laughing.

Warehouse manager Leo Paz, right, says it’s rewarding to help the community and to get paid for it as a job. On left is Amir Zambrano, managing director of wholesale recovery.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Addressing that imbalance was all Nahmias had in mind when he put an ad on Craigslist that January, asking for volunteers to help him pick unwanted fruit for donation. Six people responded, he said, but only one showed up at the first event. He persisted , and slowly, a group formed that picked 800 pounds of fruit off his neighbor’s tangerine and orange trees, and identified many more that needed picking.

That initial core group — Nahmias, Carl Buratti, Marie Boswell and Erica Kopmar — were all strangers who became close friends, “like a little tribe,” he said. For the next nine months they’d gather on weekends, picking fruit and delivering it to local food pantries. They did it to help people and build community, Nahmias said, but also because it was fun.

A community newspaper wrote a small article about their gleaning events, and in October 2009, while he was shopping for a Halloween costume, Nahmias got a call “out of the blue” from Evan Schlesinger of the Jewish Venture Philanthrophy Fund, offering him a $25,000 grant to see if his weekend “fun” could become a sustainable organization.

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Nahmias thought the call was a prank at first, but after confirming it was real, the foursome hired consultants to review its viability. The verdict was yes, if they got nonprofit status and a strong leader, Nahmias said. His “tribe” sat him down and said, “‘This could go somewhere. We should do it,’ but when it came to leadership, they all took a step back.”

Thus Nahmias became the founder and CEO of Food Forward, a gleaning operation that distributed unwanted residential fruit to community organizations feeding needy people. But it didn’t take long for its scope to grow.

By 2012, farmers markets were reaching out to Food Forward, asking if its volunteers could help find a home for the produce left unsold. Farmers didn’t want to take it back, but no one wanted to see it thrown away. What began with the Santa Monica Farmers Market has grown to 16 farmers markets in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The biggest jump came in 2014, when Food Forward started working with wholesale produce sellers. “We set 300,000 pounds as our first goal, and ended up collecting 4.1 million pounds,” despite working with borrowed trucks and loading docks, and having to coax vendors to trust the food wouldn’t be resold, Nahmias said.

Rick Nahmias in front of a new Food Forward trailer with colorful decorations and slogans like "Fight Hunger."

Rick Nahmias stands in front of a new trailer that the organization purchased to help with produce pickups.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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A man brings a pallet of produce into a warehouse.

Driver Lupe Rodriguez brings in a pallet of produce he picked up during his early morning route.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Now, a decade later, Food Forward’s warehouse and its new giant truck trailer, pulled by an electric Volvo-made cab, features a mural by Brian Peterson depicting its three-pronged attack on hunger: gleaning, farmers markets and its Pit Stop warehouse in Bell, which in 2023 distributed 87 million pounds of free, unwanted produce primarily in Los Angeles County, on a budget of $6.3 million, or at a cost of 7 cents a pound.

The organization has about 50 employees and 2,000 volunteers. Its new goal — recognized by the White House — is to collect and donate 90 million pounds of produce this year, and 100 million pounds by 2025. Funding comes from grants and individual donations, “ranging from $5 to more than $1 million,” Nahmias said.

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Back at the warehouse, Rodriguez disappears behind a forklift to unload his truck as warehouse manager Leo Paz congratulates Karlen Nurijanyan, founder and CEO of Student LunchBox, a nonprofit that provides food and other items to college students living in poverty. The group began in 2020, during the pandemic, and initially, Nurijanyan would pick up produce only from the warehouse’s smaller “Sprout” section, which provides boxes of fruits and veggies to groups too small to use big trucks.

This day, however, Nurijanyan has gotten funding to rent a truck big enough to use the Pit Stop loading dock, and he’s thrilled to be getting his first produce on pallets. During college, Nurijanyan was poor, with almost all his money going to rent. After college he got a corporate job but couldn’t shake the memory of his poverty and embarrassment.

When the pandemic forced him to stay at home, Nurijanyan knew it was time to pursue his dream of helping needy college students. Four years later, his group is serving around 4,000 students at 10 universities around L.A. County. The group distributes about 15,000 pounds of food every week, often in open-air “markets” where students can pick the produce they are most likely to eat. Food Forward’s support gave his little organization credibility with other donors, he said, and this year, his program is expanding to include donations of clothing, hygiene kits and other essentials.

This is why people want to work here, said Paz, watching Nurijanyan climb into his rented rig. Paz is all about relationships. He was already working with another hunger relief group when he learned about Food Forward’s growing to work with wholesale vendors. He knew he could have a bigger impact with Food Forward, and his expertise and warmth have helped it grow. Throughout the morning, Paz makes a point of greeting drivers and vendors by name, usually with handshakes that end in hugs.

These kinds of relationships are a large part of why Food Forward has been so successful, Nahmias said, and they must continue for the organization to get the staff and volunteers it needs to grow.

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A man moves pallets of produce from his truck at Food Forward Produce Pit Stop.

Driver Lupe Rodriguez unloads pallets of produce from his truck at Food Forward Produce Pit Stop.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A hand adds navel oranges to those already in a box.

Typically, volunteers from Food Forward harvest thousands of trees, including these navel oranges, picked from a Newbury Park backyard in 2020.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

They’re working hard to bring in more volunteers, said Ally Forest, senior manager of community programs, especially those willing to be trained to lead gleaning and farmers market volunteers. People who are curious can participate in the group’s so-called Zestfest on June 1 at Cal State Northridge’s orange grove, where Food Forward will celebrate 15 years of gleaning fruit by inviting volunteers to harvest hundreds of citrus trees.

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And then, after working nonstop since he began, Nahmias is taking a three-month sabbatical to travel, rejuvenate and plan for the future, since visioning is one of his biggest jobs these days.

“‘Share the abundance’ is not just a slogan, it’s a way of life,” he said. “We need to get people out of their own selfish ways and realize how much they have that they can share. It doesn’t have to be fruit; it could be money, time, love. … We all have abundance; we just need to find out what it is, and give it.”

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2 climate activists were arrested after spraying orange paint on Stonehenge

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2 climate activists were arrested after spraying orange paint on Stonehenge

In this handout photo, Just Stop Oil protesters sit after spraying an orange substance on Stonehenge, in Salisbury, England, on Wednesday. (Just Stop Oil via AP)

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Two climate activists have been arrested at Stonehenge in England after spraying orange paint on the well-known historic landmark.

The group Just Stop Oil took credit for the Wednesday action, which they said was a call on the United Kingdom to stop the use of fossil fuels by 2030.

“Continuing to burn coal, oil and gas will result in the death of millions. We have to come together to defend humanity or we risk everything,” Just Stop Oil said in a press release.

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The group said the orange cornflour used on the monument would wash away in the rain.

It identified the two activists responsible as University of Oxford student Niamh Lynch, 21, and Birmingham resident Rajan Naidu, 73.

The Wiltshire Police confirmed that officers arrested two people on suspicion of damaging Stonehenge.

The action took place just one day before the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — when thousands of people are expected to descend upon the historic monument.

English Heritage, the group that manages Stonehenge, said in a post on X that the site remains open. It called the incident “extremely upsetting” and said its curators were assessing the extent of any damage.

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In its press release, Just Stop Oil said it wouldn’t be enough for the UK to stop any future oil and gas licenses, but rather urged the government to sign a legally binding treaty barring it from extracting and burning oil, gas and coal by the year 2030.

UK political leaders were quick to condemn the demonstration.

In a post on X, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Just Stop Oil are a disgrace.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is running against Sunak in the upcoming election, saidthe damage done to Stonehenge was “outrageous.” Starmer called Just Stop Oil “pathetic” and said those responsible for the action “must face the full force of the law.”

It’s the latest public protest initiated by activists with Just Stop Oil, whose members have also interrupted tennis matches at Wimbledon, disrupted the London pride parade and defacedclassic works of art.

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Celeb Hologram Creator Hit with $900 Million Sexual Assault Verdict

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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

The new main exhibition hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2024.

Jared Soares for NPR


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Jared Soares for NPR

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection — is emerging from a four-year metamorphosis that has left it almost entirely transformed — new museum spaces, new leadership announced, new programming outreach.

After years of being available only to scholars, the jewels of the library’s collection — 82 copies of Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” printed 400 years ago — will now be together on public display for the first time.

We got a behind-the-scenes sneak peek to look at how the Folger is reaching out to new audiences.

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Shakespeare and the classics in Chocolate City

So much has changed at the Folger Shakespeare Library since it closed for renovations in January 2020, that it makes sense that the show reopening its performance space is called Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s epic Roman poem is all about change, and Karen Ann Daniels, who directs programming for the Folger and is artistic director of its theater, sensed that it could speak to underserved audiences in D.C. if the Folger Theatre did it right.

“The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of D.C.,” she said. “I’m totally thinking Chocolate City. That’s really where my idea came from.”

Her idea was to do the play with an all-Black cast, a notion director Psalmayene 24 wasn’t sure he was on board with until Memphis police officers fatally injured Tyre Nichols, a Black FedEx employee, last year during a traffic stop. The director said he worked through his grief at the incident by incorporating elements of the Black diaspora into Metamorphoses to celebrate Black humanity.

Artistic Director of the Folger Theatre Karen Ann Daniels at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on  June 14, 2024.

”The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of DC,” said Folger Theatre Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels, shown here in the Folger’s performance space on June 14, 2024.

Jared Soares for NPR


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“So in some ways this play is a response to America’s own proclivity for lethal anti-Blackness,” he said. “And when you do a show like this at a place like Folger, it says something about how not only Folger Theatre is changing, but how American culture is changing, how D.C. is changing, and how universal the stories that pass through this theater actually are. These stories are for everyone, and can be told in many different ways.”

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The librarian has a favorite First Folio. It’s not the fanciest one.

A huge display case in the middle of the library’s new exhibition space glows softly, quietly announcing that it contains the Library’s crown jewel: 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio printed in 1623 — more than a third of all the copies that are known to exist.

The First Folio marked the first time, just a few years after Shakespeare’s death, that his works were collected into a single volume, which makes it a benchmark for scholars. But no two of the copies collected by Henry and Emily Folger in their lifetime look the same. Some are skinny, others massive.

The main exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library

One of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 82 copies of the First Folio, the Bard’s complete works printed in 1623, just a few years after his death.

Jared Soares for NPR


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“These were all printed in 1623,” confirmed Folger librarian and director of collections Greg Prickman, “in the printshop of William Jaggard and his son Isaac, but over the intervening 400 years a whole lot has happened to these books. Sometimes they get damaged and parts are removed. Sometimes parts are added from other copies.”

Asked if he has a favorite, he headed to the far right side of the display case, past Folios prettily bound in leather with gold tooling.

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“The one that I like the most is #30 — the only copy in this collection that has the original binding that was put on when this book was first purchased, not long after it was printed.

“So, if you wanted to see, ‘What does Shakespeare’s First Folio look like when it was just another quote-unquote new book?’ that’s the copy that you’re gonna be looking at, is #30.”

A sampler of Shakespearean insults

To the right of the main display case, there’s a smaller interactive display that lets you create a Shakespearean conversation. We only spent a few moments with it, but the display makes its own selections from phrases in the Bard’s plays once you choose a category — perhaps “blessing” (“You have been nobly born”) or “burning” (“Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee”).

We only played with it for a few minutes, but we note that the plays contain a full complement of Shakespearean insults, so in theory, it could have you spouting such Elizabethan invective as:

“Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant.” (Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, scene 3)

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“I am sick when I do look on thee.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, scene 1)

“I must tell you friendly in your ear, Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.” (As You Like It, Act 3, scene 5)

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” (Coriolanus, Act 2, scene 1)

“The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, scene 5)

“And thou unfit for any place but hell.” (Richard III, Act 1 scene 2)

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“Villain, I have done thy mother.” (Titus Andronicus, Act 4, scene 2)

“Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!” (Timon of Athens, Act 4, scene 3)

The Mulberry Conundrum

The exhibition space has lots of rare manuscripts in a room called “Out of the Vault,” which of course made us wonder what else is in “the vault,” which is not open to the public. So we asked, and were led down a staircase to an imposing, steel, bank-vault door, behind which lie the refrigerated (“because that makes the books happy”) library stacks containing the quarter of a million other volumes in the Folger’s collection.

There are also 100,000 objects down here, ranging from paintings of the Bard, to props, costumes, models and “pieces of the tree,” said Prickman, enigmatically.

Folger Shakespeare Library Director of Programming and Exhibitions Greg Prickman outside the main exhibition hall.

Librarian Greg Prickman is the Folger’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions.

Jared Soares/Jared Soares for NPR

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“The mulberry tree,” he continued when pressed. “’Objects associated with Shakespearean legends’ is probably the best way to put it. I’m not the one to tell this story.”

So we looked it up.

Shakespeare allegedly planted a mulberry tree at his home in Stratford. More than a century later in the 1750s, the home’s then-owner, Rev. Francis Gastrell, got so tired of people asking to see it that he chopped it down, and local entrepreneur Thomas Sharpe bought the wood and had it crafted into Shakespearean souvenirs — everything from a carved casket that was presented to actor David Garrick (1717-1779), to snuff boxes and medallions.

So many items were created that they pretty clearly didn’t all come from one tree, but the Folger has some.

Why the Folgers placed a bet on the Humanities

The impulse to reach a more universal audience is what led Folger Library director Michael Witmore to spearhead the library’s $80.5M rethink — a wholesale “metamorphosis,” if you will, of a building and a mission that had been, frankly, functioning quite well.

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“For the first part of the Folger’s existence, it was primarily a research library,” said Witmore, “serving scholars who were studying everything from animal husbandry to lyric poetry to theater. But we have the facilities and collection to do more, and this renovation allows us to take a world-class research library and surround it with a cultural institution that is a destination.”

A destination in the service of words written more than 400 years ago. Words that are also available digitally — “we digitize in order to create access, said Prickman, “and we exhibit materials in order to create access. The originals remain.”

And the presence of those originals just down the block from the Library of Congress, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court, was a big part of the intention of Henry and Emily Folger, said Witmore.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

Jared Soares for NPR


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“We need these words and these stories to elevate our sense of what’s possible as citizens. When you think about what happens in the Capitol, which is where words — you may not agree with them, you may think they’re funny or shallow — but it’s where words really matter. Including when the court is looking at what those words mean.

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“So to put a Shakespeare library where his works are being performed, and where people are working through the poems and other things, right in this spot I think is a big bet on the importance of the humanities and the arts in a functioning democracy.”

Story edited and field produced by Jennifer Vanasco. Broadcast story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

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