Two Problems In Our Food System, One Solution
In May of 2009, Gary Oppenheimer founded AmpleHarvest.org after realizing that one solution could address two problems in our food system: food waste, and access to healthy food. “If I could solve the problem of home and community gardens wasting food by enabling them [gardeners] to get that food to a neighborhood food pantry, suddenly the food is no longer being wasted and the healthiest food you can get—freshly harvested food—gets to the people with the least access to it.” This is the foundational principle of AmpleHarvest.org—to help gardeners give excess produce to people who need it.
Gary, a CNN Hero, World Food Prize nominee and frequent lecturer and speaker (including two TED talk presentations and a Google Tech Talk,) has won numerous awards and garnered a lot of recognition for his work in solving the problem of food waste while simultaneously addressing hunger and poor nutrition in the United States. “The architecture of the food bank network in America has been that they can’t take fresh food, and particularly short shelf life food, greens tomatoes and the stuff you grow in a garden,” he says. But, the truth is that fresh food is in such high demand that food banks don’t have to worry about storing it. “The clients [of food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and other participating organizations] absolutely want that fresh food” explains Gary, saying that he’s observed time and time again how clients will go to a table with fresh food first, if it’s available.
As of February 2018, AmpleHarvest.org has developed a network of nearly 8,200 participating food pantries across all 50 states in America. The organization is powerfully effective in its simplicity: “The gardener herself literally is the gleaner. She’s been growing the food, she’s been harvesting the food all along. All she needed to do is take that food and drive it down the street to the food pantry. If you want to think about AmpleHarvest.org as a nation-wide gleaning program where every gleaning organization is one person big, that’s one way of looking at it,” Gary says with a laugh.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Gary Oppenheimer, executive director and founder of AmpleHarvest.org. Welcome, Gary.
GARY OPPENHEIMER: Hello there! How are you?
AOC: I’m doing great. So Ample Harvest, you’ve really worked on this for the past several years. You’ve gotten a lot of recognition: a World Food Prize nominee, a CNN Hero. You’ve done TED Talk presentations and a Google Tech Talk. Tell us, what this is all about? What do you do at AmpleHarvest.org?
GO: Well, thank you, it’s nice to be talking to you. AmpleHarvest.org is a program—this year will be nine years old in May—that was designed to actually solve two distinct problems simultaneously. One is food waste, one is hunger and nutrition.
The food waste problem is that the nation has 42 million people who are home and community gardeners. I’m not talking about farmers—I’m talking about people who simply have a backyard garden, a rooftop garden or maybe a community garden and they’re growing food. And they very often grown more food than they can use. You know, you’re waiting all year for your tomatoes or your zucchini, and suddenly you get swamped with this food, far more than you can use or preserve or share with friends. And historically you ended up just wasting it. You put it back in compost, you threw it away, but you felt bad about the fact that you were wasting all this lovely food. Food waste was a huge problem in the gardens.
Simultaneously, the nation has 50 million people who are food insecure. They don’t either have enough food or they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from. And they rely on, predominantly, on the Feeding America food bank Network, which is an extraordinary network of food banks and food pantries across the country that help to feed families. But one of the pieces missing there in the food pantries across America is they almost never have fresh food. We’ve all gone to food drives, we’ve all heard the same thing: jars, cans, boxes, no fresh food please.
AOC: Nothing perishable.
GO: Yeah. The architecture of the food bank network in America has been that they cannot take fresh food, particularly short-shelf-life food: greens, tomatoes, and the stuff you’d grow in a garden. I had realized that the solution to one problem would solve another problem. If I could solve the problem of home and community gardeners wasting food by enabling them to get that food to a neighborhood food pantry, suddenly the food is no longer being wasted and the healthiest food you can get—freshly harvested food—gets to the people with the least access to it, on a sustainable basis.
So I had this epiphany in March of ’09. I laid it out, literally, on a PowerPoint presentation myself in a four-hour session. I found two developers to help me put AmpleHarvest.org together. One other thing I should say, what’s important to me is not wasting anything—time, money, food, etc. I had bought the AmpleHarvest.org domain for nine bucks, I think it was, and now I couldn’t let that go to waste, so I had to proceed with the rest of the project. These two developers helped me put AmpleHarvest.org together, and in May we launched it.
And the idea was simply to educate gardeners that yes, you can donate food, and to be an online search engine to enable them to find a local food pantry that was eager to take the food—and then to get out of the way.
GO: Launched it. I had no prior experience in this space, no prior experience with nonprofits. I’m what they call an aging geek. I’ve been in technology and communications but never this. But something said this was something that was really important to the future of the country.
AOC: So how did you get the word out? I mean, everybody has a website, but how did you get people to your site or to your idea?
GO: That’s a great question. Well, part of the inspiration for this was actually a picture I had seen in the New York Times a few years earlier that was a map of the United States made of food that was representative of the amount of food a family of four throws away every month. Bill Marsh had made this map.
So I called the New York Times up and I said, “I’ve got this great thing I did and you were the inspiration! Would you be willing to do an article about it?” And they said, “No. But what you should do is call up this guy, Jonathan Bloom. He is our go-to guy”—this is the New York Times speaking—“he is our go-to guy on food waste.” So I tracked this guy down, Jonathan Bloom, who ran a website called WastedFood.com, and we had a, I guess, hour or two-hour talk on the phone. He had no idea who I was—I mean, I was a nobody. A day or two later he puts an entire blog post up on his website about AmpleHarvest.org, and it was suddenly like someone put all the spotlights on this. All of a sudden people started hearing about it.
Not too long after that, there’s a gentleman named Sasha Abramson [Abramsky] who did an article in the Huffington Post on “Breadlines” number two [“Breadline USA Part III”], and he wrote about AmpleHarvest.org. And what was interesting in what he wrote is he said something that had never crossed my mind. The end of his article said that the ultimate impact of AmpleHarvest.org would be a reduction in the nation’s long-term healthcare costs. Now, mind you, I wrote this out while Obamacare was being debated and before it rolled out, so the healthcare costs were a critical discussion in the nation.
AOC: And he said that, because, again, you mentioned that food pantries generally have processed foods—cans and boxes of processed foods. And suddenly you’re saying, you know what? Let’s give them some greens and some veggies and some fresh produce, right?
GO: Yes, but let’s take it a step further. There are two critical healthcare issues in this issues that are diet influenced. One is Type 2 diabetes, the other is childhood obesity. They’re both costly, they are both devastating, and they are both avoidable. When you have canned fruits coming in—the majority of fruit that you get in a supermarket, if it’s processed, is in a can—it’s often packed in a heavy syrup, which is going to make the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes worse or, if you already are prediabetic, it’s going to exacerbate it. So the fruits that you’re getting in a supermarket can are often exacerbating the problem of Type 2 diabetes.
So the vegetables that you get are often packed in with salt. So if you’re hypertensive, that becomes a problem. But just in general, the food itself tends to be of a higher-carbohydrate, higher-fat components—certainly not the ideal food of fresh fruits and vegetables. So by opening up the opportunity for fresh food to come into food pantries, you end up with a scenario where families get the option of getting healthier food on the table.
Now, to give you an idea of how bad these health issues are, I had the honor and the privilege of having multiple visits with the White House, the Obama White House, while AmpleHarvest.org was rolling out. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative was—she was big into exercise and healthy food. One of the things that I distinctly remember her talking about at one of the conferences was that one out of every three, and soon one out of every two children, are going to be diabetic. This is a huge problem. I mean, when you think about the fact that in the nation today, one out of every four kids—except if they’re black or Hispanic, then it’s one out of every three under the age of four—is growing up in a food-insecure home.
So you have all these families with these young kids going to food pantries where they’re getting possibly less than ideal food, and meanwhile down the street is a gardener who’s got a garden full of wonderful food that he or she would like to get into the pantry, and you start to change the dynamics of nutrition in the country. Somebody once said to me that frankly the opposite of hunger isn’t full, it’s healthy. And I think it’s important to think about that. We have 42 million people in the country growing food, and down the street is a pantry eager to get it. And so the idea of AmpleHarvest.org was to open up the pipeline of both the gardeners’ passion not to waste the food and the gardeners produce itself—just flood that into the system.
AOC: Okay, AmpleHarvest.org is born, and you have people matching up their excess food from their garden, they’re getting it into pantries and getting it into people’s hands who need it. Talk about the challenge of signing up food pantries. And how many do you have across the country? And you talked about food access in some communities is very challenging, and that’s true of gardening as well, in some communities. It’s changing, there’s lot of programs to try to improve that, but finding a garden in some communities is still quite a challenge. So talk about how do you sign up the food pantries and how do you get them on board and how do you create that relationship?
GO: Okay, our primary conduit to the food pantries in America are through the food banks that they are connected to. And just to explain the relationship—this is going to get confusing because what I’m talking about applies to 48 states. The problem in Washington and Oregon is that what we call a food pantry they call food banks. But let’s take the remaining 48 states. You have around 200 food banks in America. These are large industrial warehouses where huge amounts of food come in and out. Connected to the food banks are thousands, actually tens of thousands of food pantries. This is where a family goes to get food.
AOC: Food shelf, food pantry…
GO: Across the country they’re called a food shelf, food cupboard, food closet, and of course in Oregon and Washington, to confuse things, food bank. So we go to the Feeding America food bank as a partner. We treat them as a partner, and we’re treated by them as a valued partner, which is a wonderful, this is a very good symbiotic relationship. We go to them and we say, “We have material we’d like you to share with your food pantries.” They send that material or give it to the food pantries. It’s then up to the food pantries to say, “I’m going to sign up for this,” and they come to the website and they sign up.
The four critical things for a food pantry to know, and it’s very simple, is number one: AmpleHarvest.org is free. Number two: they don’t need extra refrigeration. Number three: they don’t need extra storage. And number four: it’s free. We say the free part twice because money is super important to the food pantries. Once the food pantry is signed up, we verify. We want to take a look, from what we can find about them, we want to look for two things that they meet our criteria, which is, number one, they are, or they are affiliated with, a nonprofit; and number two, they give the food away for free. So this really could be a food pantry, it could be a soup kitchen, it could be a battered women’s shelter. If they meet those two criteria we welcome them into AmpleHarvest.org.
Once they are on AmpleHarvest.org, it is literally the equivalent of us digitally turning on the front porch light. They become visible to the gardeners in the community. Google has been wonderful to us. We are the beneficiary of nearly half a million dollars a year of free advertising from Google. So we use that heft, and all the other marketing resources and communications resources we have, to reach 42 million other gardeners across the country to say, “You can donate food. Come to AmpleHarvest.org. Think of it as a search engine to find a food pantry in your neighborhood to donate the food to.”
Once the gardener herself—most 70 percent of the gardeners are women 35 to 85, so it’s a heavy female demographic. Once the gardener knows that she can donate food and where she can donate the food to, she doesn’t need us anymore. We’ve actually solved her problem: she will no longer be wasting the food. For the rest of her gardening life, whenever she has too much food, she now knows where to donate it to. This is frankly no different from you donating old clothing to a Goodwill bin someplace. Once you know where the bin is and that they’re eager to take your old coats, every time you got a coat, you don’t want to wear it, you drop it off. No one’s asking you, no one’s begging you.
From our perspective on solving the problem of food waste, every time the gardener has learned that she can donate the food, that’s one less of those problems in the country. And I should actually say it’s greater than one problem solved, because the data says that she will start to talk to her friends and neighbors about donating their excess garden food, and they too will take it to the food pantry. So a gardener who learns about donating may indeed represent two or three or four or five gardeners in the community who start donating the food. So there’s a huge viral component to this.
AOC: Right. So how many organizations have you linked up, and so people have the access? How many times are people going on and searching? I mean, you don’t really know how many times people are actually using the site once you get it up, but tell us about how many pantries do you have signed up? Tell us about that.
GO: We have nearly 8,200 food pantries across all 50 states, and that’s as of February 2018. I should tell you, by the way, that when I launched AmpleHarvest.org in May of ’09, 150 days later, which just happened to be World Food Day—total coincidence—the 1,000th food pantry had signed up. So it was clear from the beginning that this was really valued by the food pantries themselves. Remember, 2009 is, we’re at the depth of the economic meltdown we were having, so lots of people were unemployed, needing help. And the pantries said, “This is really, really good for us.”
So right now were at about 8,200. The number of food pantries in America is a guess because they are not all a part of the Feeding America food bank network. There are many that are independent. There had been a number published a while back, and we’ve sort of stuck with it because it’s a good working number, of 32,500 food pantries in America. So we just go with that number; if you want to say that there are more, there may well be. But this is a number we worked on. So ballpark, right now, about a quarter of all the food pantries in America have joined AmpleHarvest.org.
GO: So think of each of these food pantries as a dot on a map, literally. And what you should do is draw a circle around that dot that’s about nine miles in diameter. That’s about a 250-square-mile area, 20-minute drive. And so, within that 250-square-mile area, there are X number of gardens and gardeners. We don’t know how many there are because the country has a lot, but they’re not evenly spread out. But presumably it’s not zero in any of those places. That’s the funnel, if you will, of where the fresh food can come from the community to the food pantry on a sustainable basis.
Now the other question people are going to ask—well, how many gardeners? Gardeners do not sign up on AmpleHarvest.org. Just like you don’t sign up on Google or any other search engine to do a search, you just go to a computer and do a search. So gardeners will come to AmpleHarvest.org and say, “I want to find a food pantry near me.” They find it, and then they have that ongoing relationship with the food pantry.
We did do a study, a two-year study, in 2015 and 2016, and we asked 2,500 gardeners across America some very important questions, one of which was, have you heard of AmpleHarvest.org? When did you start donating food? Et cetera, et cetera. The data said that about 20 percent of the gardeners had heard about AmpleHarvest.org up to that point. So, for a tiny organization that at the time was, say, seven, give-or-take, years old, to have ballpark eight million gardeners having heard about AmpleHarvest.org and themselves spreading the news, we were really, really pleased with that.
It means that we’re building up slowly, both the pantries who are participating and the gardeners who know. We’ve actually made a strategic decision this year and we’re going to put more emphasis on trying to find the gardeners. We’ll keep on, of course, adding those dots on the map, but we want to get to many, many more of the gardens and gardeners across the country. Because eight million is good, but that means we still have about 80 percent of the gardeners to reach and that’s a staggeringly huge opportunity. Collectively, according to the data we collected, they are growing 11 billion pounds—that’s with a “b”—11 billion pounds more food than they can use. And if that all got to food pantries across the country, it would feed 28 million people every year.
And by the way, the USDA gives a number of, I think it’s 470-some-odd pounds of produce you should be eating every year. So that’s the numbers that we have been working with. The other cool number is not only that 80 percent of the gardeners said they would donate if they knew they could—that’s four out of five—but more than half said if they knew they could donate they would deliberately grow more just for donation.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Gary Oppenheimer, executive director and founder of AmpleHarvest.org. Gary is telling us about his program and about food waste and hunger in our country.
As you mentioned in the four things that food pantries need to know, you don’t have to worry about refrigeration because this stuff moves so fast. Can you talk about that? I mean, if I’m running a food pantry, that mantra of “no fresh food” has been deeply engrained in the system. Can you talk about how does this work? It’s a new thing—how does it work for people?
GO: The reason we can say that the pantry does not need refrigeration, the pantry doesn’t need storage, is because for the first time the food comes just before the people who are going to be needing it come to get it. Typically what happens is that when you’re donating food, or whatever you’re donating in any case, you’re showing up at your convenience, ignorant of or unaware of the timing of when that stuff is actually needed. You simply say, “I’m driving past this place, I’m going to drop this stuff off and hope it’s going to help somebody.”
It’s generous of you, for sure, but it’s not very efficient. When a food pantry signs up on AmpleHarvest.org, we ask them to put into the data that they are registering with the day or days of the week and the times they would like the gardener to come. And ideally that should be a few hours before the clients come to get the food.
So a pantry says that on this particular pantry their clients are coming every Sunday from noon to 3:00 to get food. The pantry tells the gardeners, “Would you please come from 9:00 to noon on Sundays to drop off your food?” The gardener now knows when to harvest the food Sunday morning, Saturday night. They harvest the food, they get there Sunday morning, they drop the food off, it’s laid out on the table for the clients to see a few hours later. The clients have come into the pantry to get the normal things—the bread, the cornflakes, whatever else they’re getting—and they go home. That food came into the pantry and goes out on a same-day basis. The clients that night have food on the dinner table fresher than you and I can buy in a supermarket.
And I should also tell you that there have been people who said, “Well, do they really want the fresh food?” Absolutely. I’ve gone to pantries like a fly on the wall just to watch from a corner as to how the whole process works as I’ve traveled across the country. When there is fresh produce at a pantry, somebody walks in, they go to that table first, hands down. They go to the table, and they will, whatever amount they are allowed to take—whatever the allocation equation is for that particular pantry—they go there first. Then they go to the jars and the cans and the boxes and all that other stuff. So the clients absolutely want that fresh food.
There’s an important thing to remember about the people who use the food pantry—and this is data that came from my friend Joel Berg. According to him, for every ten families that have gone to a food pantry for help because they have temporarily fallen on some economic hard times, only one family is going because they’re chronically having the problem. Meaning the large percentage of people who are going to a food pantry for a few weeks, a few months, whatever, are people like you and me who are used to eating, hopefully, healthier food. So this is not a foreign thing to them. This is something that they’d been feeding their family all along and they’d like to keep that in the diet.
So the food comes in, goes out. So the application of what we call just-in-time inventory logic, which is prevalent in industry, for the first time was applied to the food safety net. And the result is that a fear that pantries have always had of, “I don’t have extra refrigeration. The refrigerator I have is for the milk and the cheese and the butter,” you don’t need another refrigerator, and you don’t need extra shelving, because the food is going to go out the same day. So this is a very smooth flow of food.
Now, if it turns out that I’m the gardener, and the food pantry nearest me wants food at a time that’s inconvenient to me, I go to the next food pantry in the list and I see what times they want to take the food. When a gardener goes to AmpleHarvest.org to find a food pantry near her, a whole list of pantries, in distance order from where she lives, comes up and she can just go down the list. I routinely, when I donate food from my garden to pantries, cherry pick. One day it’s going to go to this food pantry, one day it’s going to go to this food pantry. When I travel I will often take food and just visit a pantry I’ve never been to before and drop off the food.
AOC: Gary, let’s just talk about this for a moment. You mentioned earlier in the program that we got 50 million people in our country who are food insecure or who are hungry. Can you tell me how the most wealthy and resourced country in the world has this issue?
GO: Well, a big part of it is—there are many pieces of it, and many of those pieces go way beyond my pay grade. I mean, there are pieces about economic inequality and about low wages. But the one piece of it—and it’s a very important piece—is the fact that we waste food. We waste a staggering amount of food in this country. It’s a global issue but we’ll just talk about the U.S. Jonathan Bloom—the gentlemen who actually put the spotlight on AmpleHarvest.org on day one—in a wonderful book he wrote called American Wastelandsaid that we could fill the Rose Bowl every single day with the food that this country wastes on a daily basis.
We have more than enough food in this country to nourish everybody. The problem here is that we’re simply not using the food we already have. If we reduce food waste—and food waste is everywhere. It is not any one spot. It’s farm to table—it starts at the farm, it ends on your kitchen table. Industry, consumer, restaurants, schools, everybody wastes food.
AOC: You know, they say the numbers are somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the food in this country goes to waste.
GO: Absolutely. People who are gardeners knew they were wasting food. They just never thought that this was a problem bigger than their backyard. I said this is not your problem, this is a national problem—all the gardeners are wasting food. So all the numbers up to now that have been out there on food waste did not include home and community garden food waste. So the really terrible numbers on food waste we have on from the USDA, the NRDC, and many of the thought leaders have to be bumped by another 11 billion pounds. In short, the problem is worse than we thought.
But in the case of the backyard gardener and food pantries—and forgive the pun—this is the low-hanging fruit. This is the easiest problem to solve. This is not a case where you have to convince a business to do something differently, or you have to try to work with the farmer to bring volunteers in to recover food that has been left behind by machinery.
AOC: As many gleaning projects do, right?
AOC: That’s a typical program—gleaning off of farms and bringing it into these kinds of locations. And you chose not that model, right?
GO: Well, and the important thing, gleaning programs are critically important, but they’re logistics-heavy. Gleaning programs need volunteers, they need trucks, they need insurance. I had the gardener herself literally as the gleaner. She’s been growing the food, she’s been harvesting the food all along. All she needed to do is take that food and drive it down the street to the food pantry. So, if you want to think about AmpleHarvest.org as a nationwide gleaning program where every gleaning organization is one person big, that’s one way of looking at it.
But the point is that the nation has more than enough food. It’s simply reducing the waste of the food—the leakage, think of it as a leakage of food—reducing that leakage, and you suddenly have a great deal more of the food available. And we’re actually, you can think about it as we’re leaking food, but you can also think about it as we’re leaking health and nutrition. Because when the healthier food is not being consumed, that means more unhealthy food is being consumed.
I’ll give you an example. I was at a food pantry in Georgia, and there they had cans of peaches in heavy syrup on the shelves that happened to come from a company in New Jersey. Down the street were trees brimming with peaches. This is the problem that can be solved.
AOC: Gary, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your work, and thank you for all the work you’re doing out there around food waste and getting fresh produce to people in food shelves around the country.
GO: It’s my pleasure, thank you. And anybody who wants to support our work, by the way, AmpleHarvest.org/donate. We deeply appreciate the support.