Forgotten Harvest

Curtis Thomas walks briskly through the back rooms of Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market, an upscale grocery store in Farmington Hills, casually pushing aside plastic freezer curtains as he makes his way to the storerooms. As he weaves between the shelves, employees wearing aprons and freezer jackets call out to him and greet him warmly. He throws high-fives and fist bumps to the regulars as he navigates past the deli counter to the refrigerators. Unlatching the refrigerator, Thomas pushes the door aside to find a shopping cart piled with boxes of cucumbers and lettuce, oranges and apples, various shrink-wrapped blocks of cheese and loaves of sliced Italian bread.

“Someone’s gonna have a good dinner tonight,” Thomas says as he takes the shopping cart and wheels it to the back of his truck.

This is some of the food that supermarkets and restaurants donate to Forgotten Harvest. Before the end of the day, it will have arrived at a food pantry or a soup kitchen in the metropolitan Detroit area. This is what Forgotten Harvest does, and truck driver Curtis Thomas is one of the people who makes it happen.

Thomas wheels the crates out the back door, shooting the breeze with a few stock room employees as he goes. He finds a spot for them in the corner of his refrigerator truck, currently empty. He climbs back into the truck cab, makes a mark on his clipboard, and heads to the next pickup.

Though Forgotten Harvest does canned food drives periodically, the vast majority of their food comes from donations from local businesses. They usually donate food that is nearing its expiration date, or has been damaged somehow and is unsellable. The non-profit company does a same day pickup and delivery system so that the products stay relatively fresh, or what Forgotten Harvest’s public policy director Anne Ginn calls “just in time” delivery.

There are a lot of people out there who’ve never faced hunger before. With the downturn in the economy, there are people who’ve never had to scrounge for food in their lives suddenly considering their options. Many are unaware of the options that Forgotten Harvest and its affiliate agencies provide.

Thomas has been with Forgotten Harvest for about a year. He says since starting this job, it’s made him appreciate more the things he has.

“I didn’t realize just how bad it was,” Thomas says. “We can’t just take life for granted.”

Thomas talks on a cell phone as he drives. He wears a green Forgotten Harvest logo jacket with tan khakis. He glances over the top of his gold-rimmed sunglasses as he spins the steering wheel with one hand to make a wide turn.

Thomas’ route takes him through Oakland County’s richer districts, like West Bloomfield. He does pickups daily at upscale shopping markets like Plum Market, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. His last delivery of the day, however, is at a church in downtown Detroit.

As he drives, Thomas points out some of the huge mansions that he passes daily on his route.

“People out here, they got good jobs, drive nice cars. They’re not really feeling the recession,” Thomas says. “But when you get down into the metropolitan areas, you really see it.”

Thomas leans on his left arm as he reaches his stop at Trader Joe’s. The radio station 107.5 plays R&B music quietly while Thomas goes over his checklist. He heads into the store and starts wheeling crates out on a dolly.

An employee at Trader Joe’s says that “we as Americans waste entirely too much.” She says that if they have something that they can’t use even if it’s an expensive filet minion, there’s no sense in letting it go to waste.

“That way people get to enjoy food that they would otherwise never be able to try,’ she says.

Thomas says it’s really not so strange for soup kitchens and pantries to serve such prohibitively expensive treats. “You’d be surprised,” he says. “Some of these people eat better than we do.”

When he reaches Plum Market, Thomas stops to get a coffee at the store café. Thomas is happily and loudly greeted by the employees as he walks through the store. Thomas says these places are usually happy to donate, and of course the food pantries look forward to seeing him weekly. He strikes up small talk with one friend or another at every place he goes.

“I just go in there like I own the place,” he says.

Thomas loads up a few cardboard boxes full of cereal on the hydraulic lift on the back of his truck. He rides the lift up with them before loading them into the truck.

Back in the cab, on the way to Target, Curtis mentions how lucky he is.

“I’ve got a beautiful wife, a daughter, a roof over my head, food on the table, two cars in my garage. I am truly blessed. You gotta be thankful every day for what you got,” he says.

Thomas lives in Belleville with his family. He says he used to drive a delivery truck across the country, but got the job with Forgotten Harvest so he could stay closer to his family.

“You gotta have faith. Faith in things you can’t see. It’ll come to pass,” Thomas says. “My grandma told me years ago ‘the wheel is always turning.’” He says she meant that even if you have a good life right now, the world is always changing. You never know what circumstances you’ll end up in next.

Though most stores are happy to contribute what they can, a Target employee says that they could be doing much more.

“I can’t tell you what goes in the compactor that’s supposed to go out the door,” she says. “The hardest part is making sure everyone in the building is aware what we can donate.”

Done with his pickups for the day, Thomas climbs back into his truck and gets ready for the trip to Detroit. He makes a phone call to the Carter Metropolitan Church to see if they’re ready for his delivery. Carter Metropolitan is a church in the heart of Detroit that runs a soup kitchen and a shelter.

As Thomas drives from Novi to Detroit, the affluent neighborhoods disappear and passing buildings show increasing signs of urban decay. Abandoned houses with smashed windows line the streets. Cars lay stripped of valuable materials. Graffiti spots the landscape.

“I’ve even had people in Birmingham come ask me for stuff while I’m loading the back of the truck. And y’know, if I can help, I will,” Cutis says.

Thomas says his bosses condone handing out a small amount of food to people who ask for it, as long as he does so discreetly.

“They told us, if you see people going hungry, you can help ‘em out.”

At the end of his route, Thomas is handing boxes of produce to volunteers at Carter Metropolitan. Many of the volunteers are people who want to get a bit of the food to take home with them after they help unload the boxes. He tells jokes to the volunteers as he hands them boxes. Everyone is in a good mood. Everyone is happy to see Thomas.

After a short while, the truck is empty again. A few of the volunteers leave or return to the shelter with some food items for helping out.

Thomas says Forgotten Harvest is not complicated. There are organizers and dispatchers setting up the routes, but it comes down to trucks simply driving food from one place to another.

“At the end of the day, they basically want us to come back with an empty truck. If we do that, then everyone stays happy.”

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