Food Rescue Effort Fuels Democracy

Lucy Gellman | November 9th, 2022

Food Rescue Effort Fuels Democracy

Culture & Community  |  Elections  |  Food Justice  |  Politics  |  Arts & Culture  |  Haven's Harvest

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Inez Alvarez and Lorrice Grant on Tuesday morning. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Lorrice Grant was on a mission. She popped open the trunk of her car, and lifted two boxes of espresso brownies into the sun-dappled parking lot. Beneath them, carrot cake muffins waited eagerly for their moment to shine. With no time to lose, she and Inez Alvarez made a beeline for Wilbur Cross High School, bursting through the heavy front doors with a cry of “Hello!” 

Grant is the director of operations at Haven’s Harvest, a food rescue organization based in Fair Haven. Tuesday, she and a 10-car fleet of volunteers ensured that poll workers across New Haven would have some sweet treats to get them through the day as they braved a 16-hour shift. For her, it’s part of the Democratic process. They included Alvarez, an intern with the organization who is also a student at Albertus Magnus College. 

“Food is a connector,” Grant said Tuesday morning, as she slipped into the driver’s seat and cranked up the heat in her car. “I’ve seen people feed their friends, their neighbors. It’s beautiful. We’re building community.”

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The Haven's Harvest Crew: Founder and Executive Director Lori Martin, intern Inez Alvarez, and Director of Operations Lorrice Grant. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Born almost four years ago as an outgrowth of Food Rescue U.S., Haven’s Harvest works to eliminate food waste by helping feed New Haven. From a warehouse on Peck Street, the organization coordinates with local sites—grocery stores, restaurants and delis, university catering services—where excess food is waiting to be “rescued.” A mix of staff, interns and volunteers for the organization pick that food up, and redistribute it to community centers, food pantries, houses of worship and schools that are waiting to take it. 

In other words, “we’re like the UberEats of food rescue,” Alvarez said. 

The food varies, but it often includes fresh produce, prepared food and perishable  products that are a lifeline to people struggling with food insecurity. For instance, Grant said, Yale or Albertus Magnus College might suddenly have fresh orange and grapefruit juice from an event with an open bar, or extra trays of warm, perishable food left over after a special catered dinner. The organization currently works with over 170 partners; in October, it passed the million pound mark for the amount of food distributed this year. 

The tradition to drop off baked goods to voting locations started during the city’s mayoral election last year—and it stuck. Tuesday morning, Grant scrolled through polling locations, a map materializing in her mind.  Already, she had been up for hours: first to vote with her daughter shortly after polls opened, and then to get baked goods rolling out across the city. As she and Alvarez checked locations from the car, it was easy to see them navigating mentally, searching the city’s 18.7 square miles for what location might come next.    

Just a little after 9 a.m., it found them in the parking lot of Wilbur Cross, unloading two aluminum containers of brownies from the trunk of Grant’s car. As Grant made her way across the lot, her energy became contagious. A few people swiveled to say hello. She lowered the container nearly to her waist, to show a blue-and-red “I Voted” sticker on the left side of her shirt. Then she and Alvarez sailed through the school’s doors, setting the brownies down on a table with boxes of coffee. HavensHavestElectionDay - 12

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Top: Grant and Elicker outside Celentano. Bottom: Ward 10 Moderator Ryan Murden.

Around them, poll workers looked up as they shuffled by; a few mouthed “thank you” to the two as they made room for the containers, and started planning their next pickup. At a table set up by the vending machines, Ward 10 Moderator Ryan Murden said he and other poll workers are grateful for such small, sweet kindnesses. 

For 15 years—or maybe 16, he can’t remember anymore— Murden has served as a moderator in New Haven. Raised in Florida, he moved to New Haven decades ago, to attend Yale for a doctorate in applied physics. While he and his family now live in Trumbull, he sees it as giving back to the place where he spent some of his most formative years.  

“It’s really nice!” he said as Grant and Alvarez headed for the door. “It’s a long day.”  

Back outside, the two were just getting started. No sooner had they started planning to hit The Shack, the Valley Street community center that West Hills Alder Honda Smith has breathed life back into, than a call came in from Yale’s catering services arm in Science Park. There was extra food—trays and trays of it—that needed to be rescued. As she buckled in, Grant headed for a quick stop at Peck Street, and then on to Science Park. 

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Arianna Smith and Alvarez. 

As she drove, she reflected on her own path to voting. Born in West Haven, Grant moved to New Haven when she was 12, and grew up close to Dover Street in Fair Haven. As a young adult she lived on Henry Street, between Dixwell Avenue and Orchard Street. But when she became a mom, she said, she began to worry for the safety of her children. She left New Haven for Hamden, where she still lives, before her son was born in 1992. 

As a voter and a mom of four, she described herself as “extremely engaged,” anchored by issues that range from food and housing security to taxes. Before coming to Haven’s Harvest, she worked for the Food Bank of New York City for almost three years, commuting several hours each day “trying to make a difference.” Prior to that, she was a nutritionist and educator at multiple organizations in the state. As a Black woman working in food justice and a parent, she doesn’t ever sit an election out. 

“Too many people died for me to have the right to vote to not do it,” she said as she drove from Wilbur Cross to Fair Haven, Fair Haven to Science Park. “A lot of decisions are made during the midterms.”

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Beloved with the food, which would likely otherwise go to waste. 

This week, for instance, her daughter’s boss told her that she couldn’t take time off from her job in West Hartford to go vote (that's illegal by the way). Grant pointed to how early voting, which was on the ballot and later passed handily, would have helped her and thousands of other voters out.

Her love for Democracy, like her love for food justice, is never far from her mind. At Science Park, she and Alvarez chatted about voting as staff wheeled out a cart stacked with blondies, cinnamon-spiced carrot muffins, and trays of collard greens, mushrooms and meat. When Grant heard that Alvarez might not go to the polls, she pushed back. There was still time to learn the candidates, she said—polls were open until 8 p.m., and it was still before 10 in the morning. “I vote for the people that I really like,” she said 

In every direction, employees waved at them to say hello. One who identified herself only as Beloved said she was glad to hear about the Election Day drop offs, just a tiny part of the work the organization does each day. “It’s so important,” she said. 

As they loaded the car, it filled with the smell of warm food, as if Thanksgiving had come suddenly, and early, to a single parking space on Winchester Avenue. Back in the front seat, Grant calculated her next moves, making a list that included Lincoln Bassett, Celentano, and East Rock Magnet Schools. As the car hummed back to life and headed down Winchester, she went over the number of boxes of treats, thinking of where each would find a home. 

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Lisa Bergmann, Manuel (Manny) Camacho, and Ward 20 Co-Chair Oscar Havyarimana.

Outside Lincoln Bassett, she greeted Ward 20 Co-Chair Oscar Havyarimana with boxes of blondies, setting them down as Lisa Bergmann and Manny Camacho came by to take a look. Stressing the importance of voting—especially in local elections—Havyarimana added that small gestures like food and coffee go a long way. He had already been there for hours, with hours still to go. 

“It’s really nice to have support and snacks for a long day of campaigning!” Bergmann said, a portrait of the late Art Perlo peeking out from a pin on her shirt. 

“The first thing that stood out to me was the smiling faces,” added Camacho, who had started his day in Fair Haven and then made the trip to Newhallville. “Bringing baked goods to support neighbors—it’s a really beautiful thing to see. It cultivates community—”

“And keeps unity on election day!” Bergman jumped back in.    

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"It's amazing," said Hart. 

Those words echoed up Prospect Hill, as poll workers at Celentano School got an infusion of carrot cake muffins with a sweet, buttery brown sugar crumble on top. As she checked voters in, food justice advocate Kimberly Hart waved excitedly to Grant, beaming as she came through the door and headed toward a table stacked with boxes of coffee that was already hours old. 

“It’s so amazing!” said Hart. For over two decades, she’s been volunteering at the polls with a strong belief in the power of voting. When she worked the primary election earlier this year, volunteers were told to bring their own food, because they didn’t get a lunch break and food wasn’t provided as part of the job. The muffins would go a long way, she said. 

“In order to affect change, you gotta affect policy,” she said before turning back to another voter, and finding his address and name. “You gotta answer the questions on the ballot.”  

As Grant got back in her car, she stopped to greet Mayor Justin Elicker, who was chatting outside the school. For months now, Haven’s Harvest has been thinking about how to secure kitchen space, she said. As soon as she had Elicker’s ear, she was describing the organization’s mission. He pointed her to Mehul Dalal, community services administrator for the city. By the time she was back in the front seat, she was drafting an email to him.

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Ward 9 Moderator Naomi Campbell and Assistant Registrar Stephanie Ranks. 

Then the group was on to Nash Street, where Assistant Registrar Stephanie Ranks and Moderator Naomi Campbell were just hours in, and preparing for a very long day.

After 30 years working the polls in her city—she lives in Wooster Square, but has volunteered in Wards 9 and 10—Campbell joked that she was hungry enough to eat the greens, mushrooms and meat that the team had picked up—but was grateful for muffins too. 

“We appreciate it so much,” added Ranks, a doctoral student in 17th-century English literature at Yale, and resident of the East Rock neighborhood. “It’s very heartening.”

Learn more about Haven's Harvest here