Tucked away in a discreet business park in Signal Hill lies a small, 1800 square-foot office, and perhaps one of the county’s best-kept secrets.
Driving by you might not even notice the business, and you certainly wouldn’t guess the non-profit it houses handles the operation of dispersing an average of seven million pounds of food annually in Los Angeles County, and parts of Orange County.
Lucky for Jim Wharton, co-owner of New York Catering, he did see the Food Finders sign plastered on the door just two years ago, and he quickly pulled off to the side of the road to call the number. He has since forged a relationship with what he describes as a “fabulous organization,” which allows his business to avoid tossing out perfectly healthy, delicious meals that go un-eaten at various events he caters.
“I’m not able to do anything with my leftovers – I’m not a restaurant that can turn extra food into soup or something,” said Wharton. “Food Finders made that problem literally go away, and the great news is that this wonderful food is not wasted. It is going to feed people who are hungry.”
Food Finders, established in 1989, is a community-based food rescue organization that serves as a conduit for food, education, and awareness between donors, volunteers, agencies and people in need.
Arlene Mercer, founder of Food Finders, witnessed a banquet manager throwing out good food in an alley trash bin and then noticed a homeless person scavenging for food just blocks away. Her frustration in wanting to help while also being aware of the incredible amount of waste sparked the idea that brought Food Finders into existence. She began by contacting food vendors and restaurants nearby to inquire about donating food overages, and then partnered with local agencies and missions to redistribute the donated food.
Fast forward to present day, and Food Finders recently surpassed the milestone of rescuing 108 million pounds of food since its doors opened, and will celebrate its 25th anniversary this April.
“What really makes Food Finders so unique is that we focus on perishable foods,” said Patti Larson, executive director of Food Finders since 2012. “Seventy percent of the food we distribute is produce – fruits and vegetables – so this is nutritious food we are able to provide that otherwise would go to waste.”
A steady stream of 150 volunteers cover routes seven days a week, and Food Finder staff drivers transport food five days a week. The non-profit is able to operate in such a small office since they do not warehouse the food. They pick up and deliver on the same day, providing enough food for an estimated 40,000 meals to varying shelters, churches and agencies on that same day.
Carol Ramseyer and her husband Richard, volunteers with Food Finders for 25 years, continue to transport food from local stores, like Sprouts, to shelters twice a week.
“We didn’t realize how much of a need there was in our own community,” said Ramseyer. “People are going hungry, and there is no need if we make the right connections.”
One of the organization’s greatest challenges is building awareness about this service, and educating restaurants and stores that it’s OK to donate perishable food.
“The Good Samaritan Act protects us and them,” said Larson. “We want to ensure the food is safe, and stored properly, so we can use it and provide it to people in need, and at the same time be green and eliminate good food from going into our landfills.”
In addition to restaurants, catering companies and grocery stores, Food Finders also partners with SoCal Harvest, an all-volunteer not-for-profit based in Long Beach that picks backyard fruit and produce to support food banks. SoCal Harvest supplied more than 23,000 pounds of produce to Food Finders last year, and their capacity and contributions continue to grow.
“We have the same basic mission,” said Cindy Goss, director of SoCal Harvest. “We want to feed those in need and keep our food local. No one should go hungry. There is more than enough food for everyone.”
Food Finders accepts donations via phone, mail-in or through support of events, in addition to online. Volunteers are always needed and can apply online at foodfinders.org.
In celebration of Food Finders 25th anniversary, a special photo retrospective event will be held on March 22 in downtown Long Beach. Details about the event and volunteering can be found at foodfinders.org.