by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The van stops and the back door opens. Inside is a feast of garbage. Perfectly good food: coffee, bananas, crackers, frozen pizza, sugar, bread — food someone was about to throw away.

“Lemme help you,” says a homeless man in a ski cap and tattered shoes. He peers inside the van, like a child sneaking a peek at Christmas presents.

“Me, too,” says an older fellow, unshaven, in a cheap grey sweater.

“Right here for ya,” says another.

“Go ahead, we’re ready.”

One by one they appear, the hungry, the forgotten. They stand quietly in ankle-deep snow and form a line to the church door. They hold their arms out. The boxes are unloaded. Juice, rolls, eggs, pickles, cookies, salt, perfectly good food, someone else’s garbage. It goes hand to hand. Hand to mouth. Inside, people huddle at tables — mothers, children, the elderly — spooning meals from plastic containers, staying warm, staying alive. This is not Beirut. This is not Somalia.

This is your backyard.

This is downtown Detroit.

This week, our new president offered a massive plan to get the country in financial shape, which means, as usual, we taxpayers have to dig into our pockets. Many of us wonder if this isn’t another political scam. So many times we hear “Cut the deficit.” So many times we are left feeling deceived.

And then there is this van, this small, weathered Dodge van that roams our city with a little refrigeration unit attached to the top. This van driven by a fellow who use to make furniture for a living. This van that goes every day to bakeries and restaurants and hospitals and airlines, picking up food that was headed for the scrap heap and taking it, instead, to the very pangs of hunger, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, where people scurry out in the snow to help unload the boxes.

And you realize this — not Bill Clinton, not Ross Perot — this is what we need to feel like we make a difference.

And it’s right here in front of us.

Prince of the city

“I used to think I knew what being hungry was,” says Chris Blakely, the thick-haired, 34-year-old driver for Forgotten Harvest, a group dedicated to eliminating hunger in Detroit, as he pulls the van into a loading dock at Metro Airport. “But until you’ve seen people rummaging through a trash dumpster, right in front of you, and taking something you wouldn’t touch and eating it, and there are rats in that dumpster and everything. . . .”

He shakes his head. Blakely, by his own description, is just a regular guy in an heroic job. He was not a philanthropist or a campus activist. Just a blue-collar fellow looking for work when he hooked on with Forgotten Harvest, and in three years, he has become a prince of the city. People see him pulling up, they beam, they glow. It is the look of people feeling good about themselves. For once.

“Got lots of bananas for you, Chris,” says the guy at the loading dock, who works for the catering service for Northwest Airlines. “And frozen breakfasts. Plenty of frozen breakfasts.”

“Sounds good,” says Blakely.

And out it comes. Tons of food. You would not believe what we are ready to throw away right here, in our own city, where poverty and hunger are amongst the worst of any major city in the nation. Bakeries with day-old bread, food centers with excess produce, restaurants, meat centers, supermarkets, hotels. You could spend all day just picking the stuff up.

“Whoa, that’s it,” says Blakely. In five minutes, his vehicle is full. He says thanks, squeezes inside, drives away. On the dock remain boxes of food, headed for the trash.

Forgotten Harvest has only one van.

There’s more to be done

You want to feel good? You want to really “contribute,” and not just the tax way Clinton is pushing? Get involved in this group. It is well-run. It is simple. Find the food. Bring it to the hungry.

They need: a new van. Or two. Or three. The more they get, the more they can feed. A van, equipped with refrigeration, costs $28,000. Many of us will pay that in new taxes alone this year. Why not give in tax-deductible form? This is the Motor City. Vans should never be a problem.

They need: cellular phones and service, to arrange orders on the road.

They need: more food donors. Not individuals. It’s against health laws to take food from private homes. But bakeries, hotels, food places with at least 30 servings worth? Spartan Stores, LiPari foods, Machus Corp. and others are already being generous.

They need: money and volunteers.

Their phone number: 557-GIVE.

Call. It’s a lot more satisfying than paying taxes. I know. I was in that line in the snow the other day, handing over boxes of food, seeing the eyes of hungry people widen at what someone was ready to throw away.

I have not felt quite so humble, or so useful, in a very long time.


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