Doing good

The reality, however, is that trucks are an indispensable part of our society. No matter how much freight you put on trains, trucks must bring it to the railhead and take it from there to its final destination

We've all heard the old saws by now: trucks are slow, trucks pollute the air, trucks clog up the roadways — can't anybody get rid of all these trucks?

The reality, however, is that trucks are an indispensable part of our society. No matter how much freight you put on trains, trucks must bring it to the railhead and take it from there to its final destination. Trucks deliver the mail and the groceries, bring you to the hospital in an emergency, help put out fires and haul away the trash.

They are also instruments of charity — valuable but largely unseen tools put to work by the Salvation Army, among others. And they help feed the hungry, something Tom Haefner knows a lot about.

Haefner is the director of food program operations for Forgotten Harvest, a charity founded in 1990 to fight both hunger and waste in the Detroit area. The organization picks up 8-million pounds of surplus prepared and perishable food every year from grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and farmers, and delivers it free of charge to soup kitchens and shelters around the city.

With one pound of food equal to one adult meal, Forgotten Harvest transports more than 8-million meals a year. Not bad for a small fleet whose vehicle count barely reaches double digits.

“The lion's share of our donations are scheduled pickups, so we know ahead of time that we're going to grocery stores or bakeries to get a few pallets here, five boxes there, etc., and deliver them to three or four agencies,” Haefner told me. “It's the last-minute things that get thrown at us that can be difficult to manage. A few extra boxes is no big deal, but 14 pallets certainly are. Any given week, we're handling some 20 add-on pickups like that.”

Donations play a key role in how Forgotten Harvest operates, and not just in terms of the food. The reefer trucks used to distribute the food cost about $75,000 retail, something Forgotten Harvest certainly couldn't afford.

Fortunately, DaimlerChrysler Services North America and a Freightliner dealership in Mount Clemens, MI, donated a 2006 Freightliner M2 Truck with an 18-ft. refrigerated van body this year. Even the local truck repair garage down the street gets into the act, providing maintenance and repair services at a discount. (If you want to help, go to www.forgottenharvest.org).

Forgotten Harvest may operate on a tight budget, but it's definitely not a seat-of-the-pants outfit. Haefner told me GPS is a critical part of his operation, allowing him to “see” which drivers are near special pickups and which routes might be over- or under-booked. “It really helps us get the job done quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The fleet has 12 full-time and 4 part-time drivers, most of whom have CDLs. Although they could work for other companies, they like the idea of earning money while giving back to the community.

And it's not a cushy job by any means, according to Haefner. “It's food rescue. It's short-dated food that must be used immediately; we can't warehouse it,” he explained. “We really have to move it.”

But the looks on people's faces are what really drive the fleet's mission home to its drivers and administrative staff. “I had a chance to go down one day and work on the trucks, loading and unloading the food. I got that same feeling as when the ice cream truck showed up when I was a kid,” said Haefner. “People came running up to us, the excitement shining in their faces. That moment is worth a lot. It let's you know just how valuable our fleet is to the process and how much we're appreciated for what we do.”

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