On Aug. 5, just outside of Deep Ellum, dozens of volunteers gathered to rescue, sort and distribute enough fresh fruit and produce to provide for hundreds of people facing hunger.
This was accomplished with an all-volunteer force and an effective budget of zero dollars. Again, on Aug. 12, hundreds of boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables were sorted, distributed and, when unusable, composted in the same location.
And again, on Aug. 15, dozens of volunteers gathered at 4DWN Skatepark in South Dallas, where they packaged hundreds of boxes of food to be delivered to homebound individuals and families.
Each of these weekly free food distribution events — the fruit of a budding coalitional effort led by Harvest Project Food Rescue, Dallas for Change and Farmers Assisting Returning Military — provides enough food to feed an average of 800 to 1,000 people.
The Harvest Project was founded in 2014 and is led by co-founder Danae Gutierrez, a DACA recipient who is not afraid to speak up about the struggles in her community.
“Nowadays, so many people belittle immigrants … but they face unique challenges … for example, if you don’t have an ID, you can’t get food from many of the big food banks,” Gutierrez says.
This was a problem Gutierrez wanted to fix, and as a result, The Harvest Project does not require intake forms —- a requirement the North Texas Food Bank only recently received clearance from the USDA to waive due to overwhelming demand and long wait times.
Prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harvest Project was already feeding more than 200 people a week, but the economic recession and public health crisis combined with controversy regarding the restrictions many face when they seek help at a traditional food bank created a new sense of urgency around hunger.
Gutierrez has accomplished this by developing a network of food distributors, farmers and volunteers, as well as other local nonprofits and businesses, such as Project la Familia and restaurant Tiki-Loco in Deep Ellum. This is all done with no institutional support; the Harvest Project operates on a shoestring budget.
To better understand how the Harvest Project really works, I volunteered with Dallas for Change, a volunteer organization run by Anthony Lazon, whom I had met while reporting on protests earlier this summer.
Previously profiled by the Dallas Observer, Dallas for Change's focus has been police accountability and supporting the protests, but beyond that, Lazon says it is a vehicle to channel volunteer manpower toward a variety of progressive causes like Harvest Project.
So on Aug. 15, I was among the volunteers who helped help sort, package and compost rescued fruits and vegetables in the morning heat.
The event was run like a well-oiled machine from start to finish. Right on time, at 8:30 a.m., more than a dozen volunteers met a produce truck at 4DWN Skatepark to sort out hundreds of pounds of rescued fruits and vegetables.
Plenty of fresh fruit and water was provided to the volunteers while they worked in the heat. By noon, hundreds of boxes were on their way to homebound families facing food scarcity.
Each box packed by volunteers typically includes enough fresh fruits and vegetables for a family of three to five people for a week. And we are not talking just leftover potatoes, but a bountiful and varied harvest of squash, zucchini, carrots, bananas, oranges and all sorts of leafy greens.
What is not capable of being rescued — because spoilage or excess — is either composted or set aside to be provided to partner organizations. Tiki Loco takes the leftover produce to make meals and deliver them to hospitals, while Project La Familia — founded by chef Diana Zamora — makes healthy, plant-based prepared foods and one-pot meals to be distributed to families.
But the Harvest Project is not just about providing food to people who need it or reducing the requirements necessary to receive food assistance.
Lazon of Dallas for Change describes the effort as “a food justice coalition because everything that we do is improve access to fresh produce for the underserved communities in our city …. With every distribution, we are feeding an average of 800 to 1,000 people. And hopefully, as you know, as we create more partnerships, we can keep pushing those numbers up.”
At the center of this is a focus on zero-waste — through the partnership with F.A.R.M. to educate about practices such as composting — and a focus on a plant-based food system that emphasizes both individual health and community equity.
Although there are many recurring volunteers, more than half of the volunteers on Aug. 15 were first-time participants. Lazon, who had started supporting the Harvest Project before the recent wave of protests, in part attributes the increase in energy to the protests.
But the need for volunteers is a reflection of the growing issue of food scarcity in the Dallas area.
“People were already facing lack of access to food before. But now we're feeding people in really desperate times,” Lazon says.
The COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent economic recession are obvious culprits, but in the eyes of Lazon, these recent crises are not the root cause. Rather, the combined public health and economic crises have only served to exacerbate existing systemic inequalities, according to Lazon.
“People have been made sick from unhealthy food systems. So we focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. I feel like it’s the revolutionary thing to do if we really want to shift this paradigm of oppression that's just kind of made us sick for generations and centuries.” Lazon says.
Gutierrez and Lazon expressed frustration with the lack of institutional support. Despite running these distributions for weeks, they told the Observer it was only recently that a Dallas City Council member publicly posted support of their events.
“Groups led by people of color like us were left out of the CECAP discussions even though food equity is a central issue … We need to support people in communities of color working on the ground, like the Oak Cliff Veggie Project,” Gutierrez says. (CECAP is the acronym for the city's plan in response to climate change.)
Lazon hopes, despite their lack of institutional support, “that the Harvest Project can create a model and present to budget hearings and City Hall meetings and say, ‘Hey City Council, this is the kind of things that you need to be falling behind, because here are your constituents coming together on a weekly basis to find solutions to these problems that you continuously choose to ignore.’”
Given that other cities, even entire countries, have mandatory food rescue programs in place, this may not seem like a radical demand. In the meantime, Lazon believes they can influence business models even without the support.
“We are saving the distributors a lot of money because they don’t have to transport this food to the dump … We are reducing waste in landfills,” Lazon says. “It’s our civic responsibility, not only [to] take care of our own, but to take care of our neighbors, our city and our environment.”