By Jessica Koslow
Every Saturday afternoon around 2 p.m., Olga King arrives at the Playa Vista Farmers Market with two empty boxes in the backseat of her car.
She will leave the market with leftover fruits and vegetables donated from vendors to distribute to families in Inglewood, the community where she lives.
She has been a volunteer for FoodCycle LA for four years. Each day she drives to pickup locations, such as Whole Foods, Bristol Farms or Trader Joe’s, to collect surplus food. On this bright, sunny Saturday before Thanksgiving, she arrives at the weekly Playa Vista Farmers Market as it ends. She pulls her car to the curb on Village Drive where the market dead-ends at Millennium Drive, gets out, and ties the strings of her FoodCycle LA apron around her waist.
“I highly value farmers markets as a source of clean food,” says King, who was born in Russia and moved to LA in 2012. “My priority is bringing healthy produce to families with children. Organic food is expensive, and many parents simply can’t afford it.”
King started volunteering for FoodCycle LA after meeting Martina Gallagher, the outreach and LA Westside operations manager, at Goethe International Charter School in Marina del Rey, where their kids attended.
“Olga is one of the first wonderful and passionate volunteers who resonated with this movement and picks up donations to feed communities in need regularly,” Gallagher says.
“I started delivering organic breads and pastries to parents at dismissal time,” King says.
FoodCycle LA’s mission is “feed people, not landfills.” In big letters on its website, it reads: 49.1 million Americans are food insecure.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “In 2020, 13.8 million households were food insecure at some time during the year. Food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome of food insecurity.”
On FoodCycle LA’s Facebook page, a timely post reads: Every year, American families waste about 305 million pounds of food from Thanksgiving dinner alone. Another post with a startling food fact reads: Over 240 million slices of bread are thrown away every year.
The organization’s mission is in line with President Joe Biden’s 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health (the first in over 50 years) and his White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities, which has as its goal: end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases — all while reducing disparities.
Over the past four years, vendors from Playa Vista Farmers Market have donated to FoodCycle LA. Currently, King collects regularly from two farms: R.C. Farms from Riverside County and Arnett Farms from Fresno. Karen’s Pupusas also donates a plate of hot food for King each week.
Visiting the vendors every week over the past years, King has become familiar and friendly with them. People like Sergio Rodriguez, who has been working for Arnett Farms for 15 years.
“We donate because we would rather give to people in need instead of making the food go to waste,” he says.
Donating its leftover fruit is part of Arnett Farms’ no/zero-waste policy. Today, Arnett donates a hefty box of golden plums.
“I was the one who knocked on all the doors and kept following up until I was able to secure one donor after the other,” Gallagher says. “I was already picking up a variety of donations for our school in 2019 when my path crossed with FoodCycle LA. Executive Director Nancy Beyda’s vision and mine aligned.
“When the pandemic hit, most folks were social distancing and hiding from COVID while watching bakeries and restaurants shut down from a distance. I was in the field and started skillfully turning those situations into opportunities for others.”
When King arrives at the market, she drops one empty box at Arnett Farms and another at R.C. Farms. She waits for the vendors to ring up their last-minute customers and start packing up their produce. Every day brings different donations. Today, R.C. Farms’ staff fills their box with kale, chard, tomatoes, cantaloupe, yellow bell peppers and Brussels sprouts. About 30 minutes after the market is officially closed, King carries the boxes to her car. Next stop is Inglewood, where she delivers the produce to neighborhood families.
“I was born in Europe under communism,” Gallagher says. “Deep inside I knew immediately that I needed to be guiding the pathways of food during the pandemic. Under my leadership we’ve secured over 350 donors and trained over 500 volunteers, partnered with over 300 nonprofits, established daily free food distributions all over town during a time when official places like churches and schools were locked down, and to this day manage this network through an easily accessible app that holds it all together.”
R.C. Farms and Arnett Farms are three-generation family-run farms. Both have been donating to FoodCycle LA over the years. Occasionally, King picks up breads and pastries from other vendors when they are not sold out.
Last August, Gallagher moved to Maryland, but the work she started continues with volunteers like King.
“We had recovered over 14 million pounds of food by the time I moved,” Gallagher says. “The legacy I’ve left keeps growing and multiplying and feeding so many while less waste goes to the landfills, which makes me very happy. During the pandemic, food recovery in LA was in moms’ hands. Word spread, and eventually all the good work paid off and it all turned into a wonderful ripple effect. My efforts made a tangible difference in the battle against food waste and insecurity, illuminating a path to a more secure and nourished future.”
People interested in volunteering to pick up donations can sign up through Careit, a third-party provider, and the process takes about 30 minutes. For more information, go to foodcyclela.org/volunteer.