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AmpleHarvest.org Connects Food Pantries to Neighborhood Gardens


Here's what usually happens at the end of a party: When all the guests are gone and all the plates have been cleaned up, there's a ton of food left over. Occasionally, you can gather up an inner circle of friends the next night to eat the leftovers and down the excess beer, but a good portion of that extra food's going to end up in the trash.

Now, tweak that scenario slightly and consider the gardens that dot pretty much any neighborhood in the country. Yes, the community gardens, but also those small ones that line the sides of houses. Usually, a lot of that fresh food also ends up in the trash. AmpleHarvest.org wants to put an end to that.

The goal of the nonprofit is to connect gardeners with nearby food pantries who accept freshly-harvested foods for donation. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. Five years into the program, they've only reached one in five food pantries in the country. I spoke with Gary Oppenheimer, the founder of AmpleHarvest.org -- as well as a CNN Hero, World Food Hero nominee, and TED presenter -- about the project.

How did AmpleHarvest.org start?

Gary Oppenheimer: There were several different places where it got started. One was the dinner table when I was a toddler and my grandmother said finish what's on your plate, kids are starving in Europe. Another start was when The New York Times published a picture by Bill Marsh in 2008 that represented the amount of food lost in America by a family of four in a month. But ultimately, the program started when I was running a community garden in northern New Jersey, and people were complaining about too much food being left to rot in the garden. I said that if we were going to have an ample harvest, the least we could do is get it to people who need it. They loved the idea, we built a local program, not probably unlike many others in America. But when I was looking for the food pantries in our town, I realized that Google didn't list any of them, and I realized there was a bigger problem. You can't find where to take the food to.

The program has been around for five years now. How has public awareness changed?

Oppenheimer: The discussion of food waste, thanks to Jonathan Bloom and Tristram Stuart and people in the media, has been growing and growing and growing. When I do my speeches and presentations, I'm framing AmpleHarvest.org as a solution to the waste of food. It's also presented as a solution to what people like Michael Pollan and Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver are talking about. They're all saying you should be eating healthier. But if you don't have access to the healthy food, you can't do it. We've actually taken a step back and said, we're not feeding people, we're getting people fed. There's a really big difference. We don't touch the food, we don't make meals, we're not rescuing food. We're simply enabling the food in the community to get to the people that need it.

Is it difficult to distinguish the difference?

Oppenheimer: Everyone talks about "food waste," and that implies wilted lettuce and dumpster diving. I've shifted [the terminology] to "wasted food," but even that is not adequate. I'm still looking for the perfect phrase that describes not the loaf of bread in the supermarket that's a couple days old but still edible. I'm talking about freshly-harvested a few hours ago. And I've reached the point now in frustration where I've put out feelers to people asking what is there in a language other than English that describes something that is fresh and wholesome and new and would have been wasted except for the fact that you rescued it. English is lacking that word.

You asked me to mention the number "$1.033 trillion." So, what is that?

Oppenheimer: If you take the combined cost to America of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, it's $1.033 trillion a year. These are not my numbers. I had realized that if you start funneling fresh food into a food pantry network that's feeding 50 million people, you have to assume fresh food is going to reduce by some amount the diet-related illnesses that are affecting tens of millions of Americans. Pick the number you want. Is it a one percent, a five percent, a fifteen percent reduction? You make up the number. But just know that every one percent reduction is a one billion dollar savings to America.

What problems have you come across trying to spread the message?

Oppenheimer: Here's the interesting dilemma. Everyone loves what we're doing. But what I've discovered in the nonprofit world is that if you're ahead of the funding curve, it's a real challenge. Food foundations say we can't help you because we don't see any food. The typical response is we love what you're doing, but we can't help you, keep it up. My hope and aspiration is to someday put ourselves out of business. I do believe a nonprofit should find and solve a problem and then go home. And we're in a position to do that in five or fifteen years, when we have nearly every food pantry in America identified, rather than one out of five right now.

What is keeping the 80% of the food pantries from being found?

Oppenheimer: The typical food pantry is in a house of worship, and the people running it are volunteers. There's no big sign, no yellow page listing, so it's a viral effort to reach them. We are an opt-in solution, the food bank has to say I want to be part of this. Last thing I want is for a gardener with a box full of carrots being turned away. AmpleHarvest is a team of three and a half people at the moment. The important thing is the footprint of the pantry. Every pantry represents a dot on the map, and if you draw a nine-mile radius circle around that, a 20-minute drive, that's 250 square miles. That's roughly sourcing for the food coming in. If we get enough of those 250 square mile circles across the U.S., I sincerely believe most growers will donate food.

Does it matter if the food is organic or not?

Oppenheimer: If you read the FAQ on the website, we gently touch on, yeah, organic's better. But we're not telling you to grow or not grow organic, to use or not use pesticides. Although, my first hand experience is that when you're growing food for your family, you tend to grow it more wholesomely than commercial agriculture does. Therefore, the food you donate is more likely to be organically grown than commercially grown food.

What about refrigeration for the fresh food?

Oppenheimer: The model of AmpleHarvest.org eliminates the need for refrigeration and storage for food pantries, because "just in time" logic is built into the model. So, the pantries can tell the growers what time to bring in the food, what days of the week. Ideally, the pantries tell them to bring it a few hours before the client comes and picks it up. The grower now knows when they should harvest the food, so that food that the clients are getting is fresh. More importantly, because there's the possibility that I'm dropping off food, and you, my friend or next door neighbor, is getting food. If we were there together, I'd be embarrassed and you'd be humiliated. By using this model, the donor and recipient are separated by time a little bit, so there's anonymity in it. In effect, this is an ethical approach to helping your neighbors in need.

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