From Backyard Garden to Local Food Pantry, AmpleHarvest.org Facilitates Delivery of Excess Produce to Those in Need
January 18, 2012 | Noelle Swan
“My measure of success is going to be not how many millions of pounds of locally grown food we get to food pantries. My measure of success is going to be when we are no longer needed.” – Gary Oppenheimer, Founder of Ampleharvest.org
Gary Oppenheimer hopes that donating excess produce from backyard gardens to local food pantries will become as natural as recycling. Until then, the AmpleHarvest.org Campaign is making it a little easier.
Oppenheimer began the AmpleHarvest.org Campaign with a small idea—connect existing gardeners to existing local food pantries via an interactive website, a $9 investment in the domain AmpleHarvest.org, and a whole lot of confidence. “I knew it would work,” he said. “I did not know how big it would become.”
This past year, Oppenheimer estimates that 20 million pounds of excess produce grown by backyard gardeners that would have been composted or thrown away have been donated to local food pantries to supplement stockpiles of prepackaged and canned goods because of connections made on AmpleHarvest.org.
Traditionally, regional food banks supply food pantries. Office, grocery store, and school food drives calling for canned goods and non-perishables stock these banks, which in turn distribute the goods to local food pantries. Feeding America, a national network of 200 member food banks distributes 3 billion pounds of food annually.
Non-perishable staples sustain many families but do not make up the ingredients of a healthy diet. Oppenheimer explained, “Michelle Obama is saying exercise and eat better. Jamie Oliver is saying exercise and eat better. Nearly everyone is saying exercise and eat better. But if you do not have the money to eat better, you do not eat better.”
By connecting backyard gardeners directly to local food pantries, AmpleHarvest.org has made a healthier diet possible for many low-income families. “What I tell people is that we are actually enabling what they are advocating,” Oppenheimer said.
While the idea of dropping off a basket of backyard-grown tomatoes at a local food pantry may not seem complicated, before the advent of AmpleHarvest.org it was a difficult task.
As the director of the West Milford Community Garden in New Jersey, Oppenheimer frequently saw unharvested crops rotting on the vine as he walked the rows of plots tended by local residents. Gardeners often could not eat, bake, or preserve their crops fast enough, and bumper crops of tomatoes, squash, and lettuce never made it to the table. When he ran a search online for food pantries to donate this excess food to, the closest one that came up in his search results was 25 miles away even though he knew of several located right in West Milford.
In April of 2009, Oppenheimer launched AmpleHarvest.org with the help of two volunteer web designers. Today over 4,500 food pantries have registered on the network. Each pantry has its own listing catalogued in a searchable database including contact information and open hours for donation. Pantries can update their listing as needed, even adding specific requests. If a large donation of cherry tomatoes comes in, pantry employees can add a note saying, ‘no more cherry this week’. “The last thing I want is for a gardener to show up at a pantry they saw on some list with a box of carrots and be turned away,” Oppenheimer said.
Controlling the flow of donations in this way is critical when dealing with perishable goods. Most food pantries are not equipped with refrigeration. Many pantries exist in borrowed spaces that only store food on a part-time basis. So food pantries request that produce be donated just a few hours before clients come. Oppenheimer said that this has not been much of a problem as fresh fruits and vegetables tend to disappear quickly from shelves.
He said that pantry clients often find fresher produce than is available at the grocery store. Backyard gardeners tend to harvest their produce right before they donate it and then only have a couple miles, at most, to travel. Grocery store produce is trucked from farm to distribution center to store, often across state lines. Oppenheimer added that because gardeners tend their crops for their own consumption, they are more likely to be organic or judicious in their use of pesticides and fertilizers. “I’m going to argue that what people get in pantries is more healthy than what they get in the grocery store.”
Enabling distribution of healthy food represents a novel approach to the problem of hunger and food insecurity. The established system of non-perishable goods donation certainly provides practical sustenance. However, it also contributes heavily to the waste stream, supports energy intensive processing of food, and requires significant fuel consumption in transportation of food.
Oppenheimer said that while environmental organizations have contributed heavily to the campaign, he has yet to receive any funding from hunger organizations. “Your typical hunger organization does not diminish hunger, it simply feeds hungry people and they expect trucks to be driving around with food on the back. Our goal is not really to feed hungry people. The goal really is to eliminate hunger in the communities by moving around food that is already there. That is a foreign concept to these organizations.”
Although AmpleHarvest.org has received a great deal of financial support, funding has been one of the biggest challenges for the non-profit campaign. Oppenheimer had no business plan or investors when he first launched the website. Fortunately, the organization’s financial needs have been relatively small. A virtual organization needs no infrastructure—no trucks, no drivers, no food—just information. Several existing organizations have been instrumental in helping to gather the needed information. Google has provided $480,000 per year of free advertising. The USDA has been equally supportive, as have various faith-based organizations—the long-time hosts of food pantries.
Up until now, volunteers have run the entire operation, but that is no longer a sustainable plan. He thinks with an annual budget just over $400,000 per year can support five full-time employees. “For a national program, that is pennies on the dollar.”