Living in his car to food bank CEO: How Kirk Mayes is changing his city

Kirk Mayes
February 11, 2022
by Paul Morello

“14500 Eight Mile Road. Remember that address,” intones Kirk Mayes. “It’ll be important later.”

Kirk is the chief executive officer of Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue organization serving the Detroit area. He’s in the middle of sharing the story of how he went from sleeping in his car while getting his own nonprofit project off the ground, to being the leader of one of the largest nonprofits in the state of Michigan .

But that’ll all be important later.

Kirk was born and raised in Detroit, by parents who were from Jamaica. He grew up in “a home that was about service, faith and high ethical standards,” he said.

His mother was in service, and his father was a United States Marine and served in Vietnam. 

“My father told me that no one is better than you, but you’re not better than anyone else. Still, things aren’t fair and balanced.”

Kirk Mayes outside.
Forgotten Harvest CEO Kirk Mayes laughs with an employee at the organization's Detroit warehouse.

As soon as he could, Kirk set about working on that injustice. And that started with a conversation with his friends, soon after graduating from Michigan State.

“We asked ourselves: ‘What would you do because it would fill your heart up?’ We realized, we were the next in line to step into that role and it was now up to us to create a better community.” 

“If I was going to change the conditions for Black people in America, then I was going to start in Detroit,” he said.

And that’s when Kirk came up with the idea of working directly with communities and neighborhood block clubs to create more education, social and economic development opportunities. He called his project the Village Gardeners.

“We would never create understanding, buy-in and adoption of social change in the neighborhoods if we didn’t have them at the table," Kirk said. "What if we brought people together to help solve problems in their own communities?”   

While he focused all his energy on the Village Gardeners, this “start-up” nonprofit had limited means, so Kirk slept in the small office a mentor shared with him at 14500 Eight Mile Road. 

Twenty-one years later, Kirk is moving a different organization into a brand-new warehouse space at 15000 Eight Mile Road. An organization with a much different focus but with the same aim of service to the people in metro-Detroit.

Only a mere stone’s throw from his first office and makeshift apartment.  

“It’s two doors away from where I used to sleep, dreaming about how I could make a difference in my community,” Kirk said.

Kirk Mayes in front of the new Forgotten Harvest warehouse.
Kirk Mayes, Forgotten Harvest CEO, in front of the organization's new warehouse outside Detroit.

Now, under Kirk's leadership, Forgotten Harvest has grown to distributing more than 50 million pounds of food each year. They’ve grown new partnerships in the community and repaired old ones. They’re working on a data collection system that will help the food bank provide an equitable mix of food to all their partners.

And, of course, they’re on the cusp of moving into that newly-built facility which will help the food bank further expand its operations and serve more people facing hunger in and around Detroit.

For Kirk, it all goes back to helping his community.

“I’m living in the moment, doing the best I can for both my community and my family,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do to solve food insecurity. The community is why I get up every day to keep on working.”