People Who Make NY Special

Feeding New Yorkers in Need

Gregory Boroff, a leading officer with the beloved organization City Harvest, explains how it turns excess into success.

Most of us try to be responsible citizens and recycle our plastics, glass, and cardboard. But how much edible food do we toss every week? If, as an individual, you throw out a Fresh Direct meal only a day past its expiration date, think how many tons restaurants and supermarkets waste? That’s where City Harvest rolls in, helping establishments like Pret a Manger and Whole Foods recycle their perfectly edible, unsold goods for New Yorkers in need.

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For about 25 years, City Harvest’s chief external relations officer, Gregory Boroff, has made a career in high-profile nonprofits. By his estimate, he’s helped raise $250 million for such organizations as amfAR, Food Bank for New York City, and GMHC. What Should We Do?! recently sat down with Boroff to talk about how his organization does what it does so well.

What Should We Do?!: City Harvest is one of those iconic charities everyone has heard of. Even so, let me ask right off the bat: What does City Harvest do?
Gregory Boroff: It’s the world’s first food rescue organization. We were founded in 1982, and the concept is the same as it was then. City Harvest was founded by a group of New Yorkers who saw that they could help feed hungry neighbors by collecting excess food from restaurants and retailers and then getting it right to people in need in the city. This year we will rescue and deliver 59 million pounds of nutritious food, which is an incredible amount, which will go to a network of more than 500 soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community food programs all across the five boroughs.

WSWD: I heard that you volunteered at City Harvest several years ago.
Boroff: Yes, I was here 17 years ago. I worked here more toward the beginning of my career, left, and came back; it will be one year this October! So it’s a homecoming for me. The brand is very strong; people see those City Harvest trucks and get excited. They know that food is going directly to their neighbors who are in need.

WSWD: Thirty-five years after City Harvest began, is the demand still big?
Boroff: The need is growing at an alarming rate. We know it’s a very expensive city. And the rising cost of living is escalating at a pace that people struggle more and more to put food on the table for themselves and their families. The organization is more important than ever before.

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Photo courtesy of Lori Cannava

WSWD: Over the past 20 years, the city’s economy has taken some hits and, as you say, the cost of living is superhigh. What sort of people benefit from City Harvest?
Boroff: What we’re seeing now when we go to the programs—the soup kitchens, food pantries, and community programs—are people who might be working two full-time jobs. You have both a mother and a father at work, or a lot of single mothers. Something that I’ve started seeing is college students living in the city who can barely make ends meet. At the end of the day, the first thing that anyone has to sacrifice, unfortunately, is food. You have to pay your rent, you have to pay your basic utilities, and health care is a growing cost for people.

WSWD: You must collect an amazing range of items, from ordinary to exotic.
Boroff: It’s everything, which is what’s so incredible. There’s this whole thing called “ugly fruit.” When you walk into Whole Foods, there’s a reason why everything is so beautiful and pristine. The [bruised or imperfect] produce that is not bought by the everyday consumer is donated. You have restaurants focused on making sure on one hand that nothing’s wasted because that’s their business, but at the end of the day there’s always something left behind. I’ve worked in all different types of nonprofits, and across the board, chefs and the restaurateurs are some of the most generous people you’re ever going to meet in your entire life. Look at chef Eric Ripert, who is now the vice chair of our board of directors. He started the Food Council more than 20 years ago, and he’s still just as devoted today as he was when I was here the first time.

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Photo courtesy of Ben Hider

WSWD: You mentioned Whole Foods. It participates?
Boroff: It does. It’s a great partner. A lot of these companies, especially Whole Foods, they do fundraisers for us, they give us auction prizes, and they’re involved in many different ways. Again, it speaks to the restaurant-retail community; they care about New Yorkers. My favorite thing about City Harvest is it’s a direct way for New Yorkers to help their neighbors.

WSWD: You’ve been working for nonprofits for nearly 25 years. Is there a personality that gravitates toward helping others?
Boroff: Many people—hopefully, all people—care about their fellow human beings, and we all help in different ways. My partner says that I do what I do, and he does what he does, but at the end of the day we’re all helping hungry New Yorkers. He works for a financial institution, and it’s not that he’s helping people any less than I am. What he does is important, and he brings that to his workplace and he talks about City Harvest and he encourages people where he works to get involved and to donate. But for people who work in nonprofits, it’s a much more direct experience. It’s wanting to be the cheerleader and the ambassador and to get everyone as excited about something that’s so important to them on an ongoing basis.

WSWD: When people ask how they can help, what do you say?
Boroff: There are all different ways for individuals to get involved. I think the biggest, most powerful thing is for people to get involved personally and then bring it to their circle of friends or workplace, because that’s the magnifying effect. It’s amazing that so many people want to help, but again, using your voice as a way to broadcast it to a larger group is the most helpful for an organization like City Harvest.