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Meet Luis Yepiz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Luis Yepiz.

Hi Luis, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I’ve been a volunteer my whole life. When I was 18, I started volunteering at KPFK radio. I always heard about their fund drives, but I didn’t have money to donate. But I knew I could work. So I started volunteering and getting involved with different social and political movements, like Proposition 187 and then the Iraq War. After being a volunteer for a little more than ten years at KPFK, I saw the plight of the South Central Farmers, who were losing their farm. And I thought it would be interesting to volunteer with them and be part of their movement. I started volunteering with them and actually worked at their booth at the South Pasadena Farmers Market and occasionally at the Crenshaw Farmers Market. Food was always very important to me because I grew up in an agricultural family—both my grandparents were farmers. We had some fruit trees at my house and more than 20 trees at my grandmother’s home. We would always glean our trees and share the fruit around the neighborhood. So that’s always been part of my life—I grew up with abundance. Helping those in need is also really important to me.

Growing up where I grew up in LA, you could see when a kid wasn’t eating properly. He couldn’t learn, he couldn’t focus. I grew up with kids whose parents didn’t have time to cook because they were working all day, every day, and so they were eating ramen noodles and dollar burgers from the corner shop. I believed hunger and food insecurity was a natural disaster, but it’s really a human-made disaster. It’s been going on for over 100 years, since the start of the industrial food complex, when people moved away from eating whole foods and raw foods and started eating more processed foods. Which leads to people not being properly nourished and the development of chronic diseases (diabetes and heart disease). After working with the South Central Farmers, I decided I needed to do more. So I started volunteering with several smaller food banks. One day I went to volunteer in the warehouse, and they told me that one of the drivers was absent. And since I grew up around trucks—my dad was a truck driver and then a diesel mechanic—I said, “I can drive the truck.” So I went to the Wholesale Produce Market in Downtown LA and came back with a full truckload of produce.

From that day on, I became a driver. At the time, I was working at my family’s diesel mechanic shop and also focusing on music classes, my poetry—see, I grew up being around mechanics, and the son of a truck driver and diesel mechanic, and the grandson of farmers. But I spent all of my 20s trying to get away from that. I’ve been a published poet since my late teens, I studied music, I had a punk band, I sang opera, I wrote plays. So, I wasn’t trying to get back into logistics, and truck driving, and agricultural goods. But the combined experience of everything I had learned my whole life led me to it anyways. I was driving the truck to the Wholesale Produce Market for the food bank as a volunteer for a couple of years. I started liking what I was doing, getting a feeling for providing food to those in need. I liked it a lot more than being a mechanic. And I got a job doing procurement for a consortium of hunger relief organizations. A big part of the job was building relationships with sellers at the Wholesale Produce Market, and a lot of those guys share similar upbringings to me. We were kids that had been in LA almost our whole lives, but we were from somewhere else. We’re Spanish speakers and share a lot of the same culture. So it was fairly easy for me to communicate with them and express how I was trying to help our communities with their donations. Around this time, my dad retired and my brother graduated as a mechanical engineer, so they were both leaving the diesel mechanics business. They told me “Luis, you get to keep the shop!” And I told them “No, I got a job—I’m doing food recovery.”

After a few years, I saw a listing—Food Forward had decided they wanted to collect produce at the Wholesale Produce Market. They had a job posting up for at least six months, but they couldn’t find someone that was able to do the job. I saw the listing on the last day it was up, typed up my resume, and drove to the office in North Hollywood to drop it off. I started driving back home, and within 15 minutes, Amir Zambrano (Food Forward’s Managing Director of Programs) gave me a call. I got hired, and in the first year, the organization set a goal of recovering 320,000 pounds of produce. We ended up recovering almost 4.3 million pounds. They knew they wanted to do food recovery at the Wholesale Produce Market, but they didn’t know what was possible. I worked really hard that first year because I knew it was my opportunity to prove to them, to someone, that this could be done. And because I learned how to work from people that worked day and night, and when I find a worthwhile pursuit, I go all in. I was also really invested in doing this work here in LA and helping the communities I grew up in. When I first came to LA, my family was trying to settle so we lived and worked everywhere—in Los Angeles and Southern California. lots of different neighborhoods. And when I started at Food Forward, we were distributing food in those communities. I felt really proud about that—I really felt like I was helping the kids that grew up like me.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It hasn’t always been a smooth road, there have been a lot of adjustments. It has taken a lot of proving to people that this can be done. And it hasn’t always been easy to find the right people to work with and the resources to allow this dream to grow. But meeting Rick Nahmias (Food Forward’s Founder and CEO) and Amir and starting at Food Forward was a big step. Back when I was a volunteer doing food recovery, many years ago, I had the idea for a warehouse, what is now Food Forward’s Produce Pit Stop. It was something I actually saw in a dream. I used to tell everybody: “One day, we’re going to have a central warehouse, and we’ll take all the donations that are available. We’ll serve all of Los Angeles and all of Southern California.” People thought I was crazy! When the salesmen at the Produce Market, who’ve known me for the past 15 years, saw the Pit Stop, they told me, “Dude, you did it! You’re not crazy.” They said, “You’ve been talking about this since you were coming here in a pickup truck.” And they did not believe it was possible. But I just told them, “You’ll see.” The main obstacle has been keeping up with the changes and the growth. By the time we would decide to expand and grow the team, we would already be way past what that person could help us with. Now we have such an incredible team in the Wholesale Produce Recovery program, really good people with a lot of experience at the Wholesale Produce Market. Another challenge is that food recovery is a seasonal thing—everything is flexible and flows differently from year to year.

There’s a lot of turnover with the people at the Market in charge of making the decisions, so there wasn’t always a steady supply of donations. But now, we have relationships with most of the wholesalers in Southern California. In the beginning, another big challenge was waking up so early because I was in the opposite cycle. I used to go to sleep at 4 am, because my preferred writing time was from 11 at night to 3 in the morning. That’s when I would write all my poetry, my plays, my short stories. I had to flip my whole life, but I knew it was necessary for us to really succeed at the Wholesale Produce Market. I made the decision to work produce hours—before I came in, the food recovery sector in Los Angeles was starting at 8 in the morning. When I started at Food Forward, I told them we needed to start at 4 am. And people like Leo Paz would go to his regular donors at 7 am and they would say, “Luis already came, we don’t have anything.” Leo is now Food Forward’s Wholesale Recovery Program Manager, but at the time Leo was doing food recovery for Faro de Luz, a medium-size hunger relief agency, and he was my biggest competition in the food recovery space. But we worked together and we both grew because of each other. By starting that early, we literally shifted the whole food recovery sector to working earlier—very few agencies start later than 5 am now.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Nonprofit. Food Forward (501(c)(3)) fights hunger and prevents food waste by rescuing fresh, surplus produce, connecting this abundance with people in need and inspiring others to do the same. Fruits and vegetables are collected from backyard fruit trees, public orchards, farmer’s markets, and the downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Terminal. 100% of the recovered produce is donated to hunger relief agencies across eight counties in Southern California. The organization has won four consecutive Food Recovery Challenge awards from the U.S. EPA (2015-18) for its work to prevent and reduce food waste.

What would you say have been one of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Two things: volunteering and collaboration. The value of being a volunteer, and the work that volunteers are able to do, is very important. A lot of people feel impotent that they cannot make a difference. But that is a fallacy. Because all you have to do is get up and work for what you believe in. I am what happens to a guy that volunteered his whole life. It’s incredible to think about all the work we’ve been able to do. All those people, all those families that have been fed because we kept doing this work. The other thing that’s really important to me is collaboration. The history of Food Forward has been all about making it easy for people to work with us. From the very first day that I started, my goal for the Wholesale Produce Recovery program was to take care of the procurement for nonprofits, so they would find it easy to distribute food. A lot of nonprofits used to put their whole budgets towards trying to procure food, and they weren’t able to put as many resources into distributions. But we provide such a great value proposition that organizations that have never done food recovery or food distribution are able to work with us.

We work with community clinics, churches that didn’t distribute food in their 20 or 30 years of existence, and so many other organizations that are now distributing food because we made it easy for them. They just have to focus on serving their communities. Because we are experts in procurement, but we leave the expertise about helping those in need to the communities themselves. They’re the ones that know who needs the food the most and how to reach them. And that’s why the partnerships we have are very, very important. For example, our partnership with the Church of Resurrection in Boyle Heights has been pivotal for us. They are a large receiving agency, and we started working with them towards the end of 2015, delivering large loads of produce. They set up a distribution for the community and for other local agencies. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to prove the concept of the Pit Stop, our local Food Hubs, or our Produce Pick-Ups. At the time, I remember saying: “Imagine taking ten pallets to every single city in LA, and communities will be able to distribute it by themselves, help their own people.” That’s what we first did at the Church of Resurrection—and now we support more than 100 sites that distribute fresh fruits and vegetables across Southern California. I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

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