Interviewed by Charles Morgan III
Destin Harvest is a food rescue program that has distributed more than five million pounds of food to local feeding programs since 2007. It was founded by George Landegger, a part-time resident of our area.
Destin Harvest has four refrigerated box trucks and picks up high volume food donations from retail grocers and restaurants in Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Santa Rosa Beach. The foods are harvested daily and distributed at no charge to nearly 40 feeding programs. None of the food is warehoused. Distributing the food daily significantly reduces the time perishable items reach clients.
Chris Leavenworth is the director of Destin Harvest.
How did you get started with Destin Harvest?
Destin Harvest started out with a small refrigerated truck, one full-time driver, a part-time driver (me) and a director (Kim Moore). I was hired as a part-time driver in 2008 when I was working as a stock manager at Williams Sonoma. I was also attending school. I was 22 years old.
You were young. What have you learned?
I wasn’t exceptionally aware of my surroundings or the needs of others at that point in my life. It was a job that I worked on the weekend, and it provided a supplemental income. I was naive, had preconceptions about the way things are, and in an excellent position to learn. Driving the truck opened my eyes to some unpleasant truths and made me think about the ones we serve.
Without having given much thought before, I questioned the purpose of helping people who I quickly assumed were lazy or made bad life decisions. I believe people are sometimes drawn to simple answers when they are uncomfortable about knowing the truth. I know I was.
What is it like out there when you deliver the food?
Within the first few months, I was presented with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. My predispositions about people in need couldn’t reconcile with what I was seeing. It was not long before I made friends with some of the families and individuals that I would see on our stops. Not only were these people not lazy or incompetent, I quickly realized how easily I could relate to them.
I’ve witnessed the homeless make themselves useful wherever they are. At feeding programs, they are generally the last to receive and the first to help bring food in and sort it out with the volunteers. I also learned that many of the chronically hungry don’t have a long history of receiving assistance. Same goes for the homeless. Something happens to a person, or a household, that puts them in a position to seek out assistance. Nobody ever wants that. I kept thinking of how easily something like that could happen to me.
When did you commit to Destin Harvest full-time?
After six months of driving part-time, I was offered a full-time position as a coordinator. Michael Walsh had taken over as our new director. We began picking up foods from local grocers, increasing our volume exponentially. My job was to reach out to new feeding programs, add them to our route, monitor truck maintenance and food numbers, and drive a truck five days a week. We were delivering food to Crestview, Fort Walton Beach and Navarre and had over 20 recipient feeding programs.
Once we got the route and increased food volume nailed down, I built our first website. I realized that I was doing something I really loved and wanted to make myself as useful as possible to the company. I had worked retail and restaurants my whole life, and I can’t say I was ever too passionate about it. I had become so close to many of the volunteers and staff at the feeding programs I delivered to that I realized this was a great opportunity for me.
Willie Hutchins, who has been with us from the beginning, used to give me a hard time when I started. But he really wound up being a mentor to me. There were at least two days every week that we drove together and we talked a lot about the job and life. He was one of the first people to show me how little I know. He also taught me how to drive those 20-foot trucks. I’d say that he is a big part of how I developed as a person and how I approach this work.
What are the challenges for Destin Harvest?
The biggest challenge is getting people to understand that hunger is a real thing. I don’t know what it is, but local hunger is not something most people get too worked up about. Hunger relief is recognized primarily in the fall—September is Hunger Month.
We need more local supporters. The operation cannot continue to grow until we can sustain the operation with local funds. We are able to acquire food much cheaper than what it costs for someone to purchase canned items. Plus, we are able to get perishable items that tend to be more nutritious than items food banks and pantries generally get from canned food drives. One pound of food only costs Destin Harvest 13 cents a pound.
What’s a normal day like for Chris Leavenworth?
It can be anything from jumping on a truck and helping out on the route, meeting with a new feeding program, checking in on existing feeding programs, getting trucks repaired, maintenance, bookkeeping, and anything else that needs to be done. I also apply for grants when there is an opportunity.
You’ve got a family?
I met my wife Anya when she was working at Bed, Bath and Beyond, right before I started at Williams Sonoma. I was a mess. I lived in Choctaw Beach with a friend, and we played a lot of music and didn’t always pay our bills. I met her in the winter, and we didn’t have electricity at my place. I have no idea what she saw in me, but she cleaned me up pretty good. My Pop, Mike, told me that Christmas that I had better not let her go. We got married that spring. James, our son, is seven years old. Anya and I have been married almost 10 years now.
You like your job?
The work has been truly rewarding. I couldn’t ask for a better job. I actually am scared of ever having to settle for less if anything ever happened to Destin Harvest. This job has taught me so much about people and circumstances. I’ve made so many wonderful friends from all the different programs we deliver to and the businesses we work with. I don’t think I could have found these people any other way.
I’m also fortunate to have time for my own life and family. Not many people have that. I’m extremely lucky.