Food Rescue: Action for Zero Waste at Rochester's Public Market
ROCHESTER, NY: If you visit the Rochester Public Market on a Saturday afternoon, you are likely to see a painted, repurposed school bus parked next to a group of individuals sorting through food refuse. These are the Flower City Pickers (FCP), and they began their mission in January, 2015.
In the beginning, they were a small group of dedicated volunteers led by Khoury Humphrey. Their numbers have grown, with a demographic spanning a considerable range of ages, as young as five, and occupations. With the influx of human-power, the reach of their impact on the local community has grown as well. According to Tricia Banks, FCP’s volunteer coordinator, they are now able to donate food, largely fruits & vegetables and some baked goods, to more than twenty different shelters.
Collected food donations are divided into three categories: A (astonishing), B (bruised/blemished), and C (compost). The highest quality food items get an A, and are sorted accordingly; those unfit for human consumption become compost.
Flower City Pickers self-identify as “a secular, all inclusive group of volunteers that redistributes leftover produce from Rochester's Public Market every Saturday to local homeless shelters, halfway houses, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other organizations with need for food.” FCP work in loose conjunction with the Public Market, whose staff has made allowances to support the presence of FCP, including designating parking lot spaces for the operation to continue on site. However, this hasn’t always prevented motorists from attempting to claim those parking spaces. As a solution, Market staff have provided barricades to help the Pickers secure their territory for the four hours they conduct their collection.
Evan Lowenstein is the communications and special events coordinator for Rochester Public Market. Before the Pickers came along there was what he describes as “an unorganized, yet pretty effective system.” Lowenstein says, “people from all over the city and probably beyond would show up at the end of the market and glean some of the stuff that was being set aside for the trash. A lot of it was being taken, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.” He adds that the Public Market staff did not prohibit nor did they necessarily explicitly encouraged the scavenging.
As for the success of the Pickers, the founder, Khoury Humphrey says it has come down to a few crucial elements: “consistency had been the key…. We’ve actually established relationships with the vendors…. Essentially we’re getting rid of their garbage and trash for them,” Humphrey says. “[The vendors] don’t get any big tax write off for giving us food, so instead of that we have to find another incentive for them. So we’ll help clean up their area, help sell stuff for them… make them feel appreciated.”
One such vendor is Jamison Clark, an employee of Small World Food. Small World is a worker-owned cooperative that specializes in local organic food, baked goods, and fermentation. Clark has a personal connection with members of the Pickers, and has supported their efforts by creating video content for the organization’s GoFundMe campaign. “Quite often [Small World Food doesn’t] have that much to give out…. As much as we possibly can, we take what we can’t sell and give that to Flower City Pickers so that they can redistribute it.”
On the coordinated efforts between Flower City Pickers and other like-minded organizations, Clark adds, “Food waste is a huge problem, and so is hunger and poverty. So the fact that [Khourey’s] found such a great way to bring those things together and most importantly raise awareness about it I think is super inspiring.”
Rochester Food Not Bombs (FNB) is one organization with which the Pickers work in tandem. The Pickers collect and sort; Food Not Bombs volunteers then pick up sorted food which their volunteers cook into a meal that is served to the public on Saturdays at Nathaniel Park. Rachel Farley has been volunteering with Food Not Bombs for about a year. “We serve the food to anyone who comes.” She explains as she and volunteers load up the trunk of her car with boxes of collected food.
The spark that lit the flame originates with Flower City Picker’s founder. In the winter of its conception, Khoury Humphrey shares that he was staying in a basement with just enough heat to keep the pipes from freezing.; he had recently moved back to Rochester for heart surgery, “it was kind of last minute and kind of an emergency,” he says.
He was inspired into action after Rochester’s city government bulldozed Sanctuary Village – a homeless camp under a bridge in downtown Rochester. Amidst the dispute, activists protested, and local independent media documented the conflict. Residents of Sanctuary Village were relocated to a warehouse without running water or toilets. Khoury wanted to help, but had no money, so he came to the market to pick up unwanted food.
“I definitely understand the feeling of being hungry and not knowing where you’re going to get your next meal,” Khoury explains. “When I was younger, I don’t even remember how old – probably around six or seven, my family and I were homeless for about four months…. We lived out of a van, a big ol’ van…. We were always getting evicted and moving around a lot. Both my parents were disabled and on a fixed income so it was really challenging for us.”
His method early on with Flower City Pickers was rather simple: “I had a little piece of paper that I had my little face printed on it with a little blurb that said, ‘hey, be nice to me I’m going to see you every week,’” he says.
In late April, Flower City Pickers was awarded a donation of $7,000 by The Knights of Columbus Trinity Council #4618 to help further the organization’s operations. As for what the future holds, Khoury says, "ultimately we're trying to work ourselves out of a job," though he also shares a playful idea to have an "ice-cream truck" style program down the line.