Three years ago, after visiting a farmer’s market and witnessing one of the sellers throw out what seem like perfectly good food that could be used, now fifteen-year-old Angeleno, Dara Chidi, sprang into action. After some research, Dara found Food Forward, whose mission is to “fight hunger and prevent food waste by rescuing fresh surplus produce, connecting this abundance with people in need and inspiring others to do the same.”
Today, the farmer’s market vendors see her and immediately know why she’s there. Armed with her Food Forward apron, she collects donations from them to later be distributed to various organizations that work directly with populations in need across eight counties in southern California.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Car rides through LA always remind me of the hunger crisis right here in our own backyards, in America, one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. Starving women on the sidewalk hold worn signs, begging for the opportunity to work for food — any food. Emaciated men walk unsteadily from trash can to trash can, overwhelmed by hunger and thirst. I always found it difficult to comprehend how it is possible to have such poverty in a culture where the landfills are full of food waste and staple crops get destroyed to maintain a certain price. I could never get those images out of my mind and wished there was something I could do. I was bothered by the fact that every day, there are children who have no other food outside of the free school lunch and find it hard to concentrate on the lessons in school because of the hunger pangs they feel. I was bothered by the thought of seniors who struggle to stretch their fixed incomes between medicines they need and rent and do not have enough for food. Despite the fact that one in ten people don’t know when or if they’ll see their next meal, I would see restaurants throwing perfectly good food away and farmers throwing away fresh, unsold produce at the end of some farmers’ markets. Volunteering with Food Forward, a national organization that helps alleviate this hunger crisis, was the vehicle I needed to ensure that the vulnerable can get fresh, nutritious food.
Describe your volunteer role.
On Tuesdays, Saturdays, and/or Sundays, I go to a local farmer’s market and collect leftover produce. After putting on my Food Forward apron and badge, I pull the cart carrying stacks of flattened cardboard boxes towards the bustling market. At every produce stand, I stop the cart and walk up to the vendor. Since I’ve been volunteering with Food Forward for so long, they already know what I’m there to ask, “Good afternoon, would you like to have a Food Forward box today?” They almost always say yes and ask for at least 4 or more boxes. It makes me smile every time to know that they care to give their produce to the hungry. I quickly hand out the number of boxes to my peers and briskly start assembling the boxes as they write the vendor’s name. By now, I know all of their names and have developed a friendship with many of them. As I walk through the market, I feel a spring in my step, thanks to the calypso beats from the Caribbean steel drummer, who is positioned in the center aisle of the market. We exchange hellos before I have to wheel off to the next tent. After an hour, we’ve gone to every tent, but soon after, we go back to collect the heavy boxes. It takes at least five trips back and forth to collect all of the boxes. Afterwards, we weigh each one and distribute the boxes to different organizations that serve the homeless, seniors, and poor based on their needs. I help load the boxes into the various vans and then head back to put away our carts, scales, aprons, nametags, clipboards and markers, until the next market.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
I’ve had my share of “nice work” and “good jobs,” but what truly lifts my spirits is knowing that I’ve positively affected another person’s life with something that is as essential as food. Lacking something as crucial as food in the land of so much has got to be extremely demoralizing, regardless of whether it’s due to homelessness or insufficient funds or by virtue of being a homebound senior with limited resources and failing health. I feel very fortunate to be able to offer dignity and a message of care, hope, and humanity. My hope is that this lets them know that despite the hardships they may be facing, people do care and they are not statistics, they are not invisible. The drive to let others know they are important to total strangers is what keeps me going when the weather is either too hot or too cold to be outdoors at the market, or when I have an extremely busy day ahead of me once I leave the market. To me, true success is not the career I hope to have or the money I will earn in the future but what positive impact I can make in the lives of others who did not or do not have the same opportunities. Volunteering has taught me a lot about what is really important to me, and I wouldn’t have gained such knowledge if I had just decided to sit at home and hope that others solve the problems in our communities and the world.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Volunteering in farmer’s markets has completely altered my way of thinking. I realize that even one single person’s effort makes a difference. If I hadn’t decided to do something about the major starvation dilemma, thousands of meals would have merely been hopeful dreams. Just knowing this makes me feel satisfied. I’ve learned that, over time, one’s impact is great, so one should do whatever they can to help, even if it’s something simple like giving a dollar to the next homeless person one sees. At first, approaching strangers and asking if they wanted to donate their produce was quite daunting, but over time I became more comfortable and noticed myself become more outgoing in public. Through speaking Spanish to Latino farmers and vendors, I was able to use language skills to reach across cultures and find common ground. “Buenas tardes! ¿Quiere una caja de Food Forward hoy?” They always invariably smiled and would compliment my Spanish and encourage me to keep practicing, much like my aunts and uncles would. At the end of the day, we are not so different from each other.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I have learned a lot about effective leadership skills including how to set goals, motivate, inspire, communicate with, and serve alongside others in a team setting by closely observing the various Glean Team Leads I have worked with. It has allowed me to see both what works and what can be improved upon. Next March, I will turn 16 and will be eligible to train to become a Glean Team Lead. This will allow me to try out my ideas about increasing efficiency of collection and distributing the produce, as well as outreach to get more kids involved. I am hoping that it will give me more of a platform to suggest more commitment to raising the next generation of food gleaners.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Humanity is an attribute in each of us, which we can either ignore or ignite. The great thing about it is that igniting it by taking care of others and our environment is a win-win situation. I am often amazed watching TV shows about social animals and seeing how they are more loyal and committed to the group or pack than we human beings are. We seem to be focusing more on the self as opposed to the community. I believe that the secret to true contentment lies in tapping into our humanity and expanding our community beyond ourselves and our nuclear families. There is so much to learn from many who may not have money for food but have so much to teach us. We need to stop measuring people’s worth by how much money they have and start valuing what each individual brings to our community, whether it is an example of grace under pressure or perseverance or empathy or generosity or talents that are no less important than those that are monetized. We all live on this one planet, breathe the same air, and come from the same origin — doesn’t this make us brothers and sisters? Food is a human right, as are many other important things. If each of us contributed to what we are passionate about, to the extent that we are able, the world would be a better place for all.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
The future will be bright only if we light up the present with our individual lights. I want people to realize how rewarding reaching out a hand to help others is. My favorite saying is that the presence of the divine is in community. We need to expand the idea of who our neighbor is to include more and more people, and volunteering is a great way to give of ourselves while honoring the divine in each other.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dara? Find local volunteer opportunities.