Harvest Project Food Rescue keeps its feet on the ground and a smile on its face.
It’s early Saturday morning. Danae Gutierrez pulls into Lipman Family Farms, a massive produce wholesaler, driving her old white pickup with her son Dorian riding along. She uses it because it gets the job done. She makes this trip every Saturday morning, because she gets the job done. Her mission: to pick up as much unsalable but sufficiently edible produce as the flatbed will allow, and drive it down to one of several locations throughout DFW – in this case, San Francisco De Asis Episcopal Church – where a team of volunteers will work to sort the food for redistribution.
It’s called the Harvest Project Food Rescue, and each word in the name is completely accurate.
“We didn’t even have a name when we first started!” laughs Ms. Gutierrez, recalling the origins of an organization that started, and has remained, humble. “We didn’t have a truck or anything. We really started with nothing. That’s why I couldn’t take all the grapefruit!”
To explain that statement necessitates a bit of history…
Gutierrez and her parents emigrated to the United States when she was seven. With low income potential, her family often experienced food insecurity, unsure of where their next meals would come from. For this reason and many others, her parents placed a high value on education, and Danae’s intellect and vibrant, outgoing personality served her well throughout her formative years. She is not afraid of hard work and is willing to step in when she sees that “somebody needs to do it!”
When her son Dorian became a student at Cigarroa Elementary in Dallas, she saw a need for leadership at the PTA. Before long, she was elected President, and even received a DISD Volunteer Impact Award for School Support. During this time, she met Luis Carrillo, a fellow PTA board member who was also working with Dallas Mexico Casa Guanajuato, a community center serving the Mexican citizens of Dallas. Carrillo was seeking quality produce for the senior citizens, as the contributions they were receiving were not always usable. Gutierrez said, “well, somebody needs to do it”, and in the summer of 2014, she went about the process of talking to the produce wholesalers near the Farmers Market.
“I went to this one place, and they had twenty-five boxes of beautiful grapefruit!” Gutierrez recalls. “They had a couple of blemishes on the skin, so they weren’t for sale, but they were in great shape. So I took a box and they were saying, ‘when are you coming back for the other twenty-four?’” She laughs and says, “That’s when I realized there were literal tons of produce going to waste, and we just had to get it to the people who needed it.”
Ms. Gutierrez smiles as she recalls the origins of Harvest Project, as she smiles about many things. Her positivity and tenacity transform the seemingly onerous task of food rescue into a positive mission.
Since 2014, Harvest Project has grown – cautiously, responsibly, and humbly. Gutierrez wants to be sure the nonprofit never gets so ambitious that it overreaches its primary purpose. “We don’t want to have people who are counting on us to be waiting around, because we’re spending too much time going too many places.” In a given month, Harvest Project will take its seven vehicles to seven locations – some weekly, some semi-weekly, some monthly. They now serve thousands of families every month in locations ranging from South Dallas to Arlington.
The volunteer arm is fully self-supporting, in that all of those who serve at each site are participants. Gutierrez explains, “The people who assist are willing to show up early and get things sorted and set up, because they get first choice of the produce.” As always, humility is the acme of the project, and this is a big part of the training as well: since the volunteers are participants, it is made clear that they are to treat their fellow recipients as equals. “We won’t allow people to be like, ‘oh, we’re the ones giving you the food, so we’re better than you.’ Because the volunteers are receiving contributions, and getting first pick of the produce is a perk, everyone’s in the same boat – and we usually have too many volunteers! There’s a waiting list of people willing to help.”
The process of “food rescue” goes beyond distribution. Participants in the programs are given valuable tips on preparation, storage, financially-responsible shopping…even composting. Self-support is always the goal.
While the organization may have started with Hispanic leanings, the participants and volunteers come from all over the globe, as one would expect when dealing with a community as culturally-varied as DFW. “Food insecurity can affect everyone,” Gutierrez says, “and it was humbling for me to find that even I had assumptions of what need looked like, and every week I see proof that it’s a challenge that transcends cultures.” But just as the challenges can be transcendent, so too can solutions, and participants work find ways of overcoming language and ideological barriers to make Harvest Project work.
Sometimes these differences can provide educational opportunities. “In one area, we have a lot of participants who are refugees from Myanmar,” Gutierrez says, “and I was picking up the produce to bring to that mission, and I got all these banana leaves. I thought, ‘What is anyone going to do with a banana leaf?’ So we get out there, and all these refugees got so excited! I didn’t know that in Myanmar banana leaves are used like husks are used for tamales in Mexico. Not only did I learn something new about a culture, but also I now know how to use a banana leaf to make food in my home!”
The key to the success of Harvest Project Food Rescue is a clarity of purpose, and humility. Provide produce and education for communities in DFW experiencing food insecurity one banana at a time – and with a smile.
ORCHARD At The OFFICE, the largest office fruit delivery service in Texas, is proud to contribute to such an important organization, and salutes the inspiring work of Ms. Gutierrez, who has been a member of the ORCHARD At The OFFICE team since 2017. We are grateful to the many others like her in every community, whose names so often go unmentioned.
If you would like to make a donation to Harvest Project Food Rescue, visit http://www.harvestproject.co/donation.
For office fruit delivery anywhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, visit https://orchardattheoffice.com/home.php.