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Guest post: Gary Oppenheimer, “No Food Left Behind”

Posted on by anita.mathews

Gary Oppenheimer is the Founder of AmpleHarvest.Org. In 2012, he lectured at the TEDxManhattan conference, and in 2010, Oppenheimer was named a CNN Hero.

According to a 2009 study by the National Gardening Association, more than 43 million Americans grow fruit, herbs and vegetables in home gardens – and that number is increasing. These gardeners, given good soil, access to water, lots of sun, and a little bit of luck, typically wait for months for their crops to start bearing fruit.  Once they start the harvest, they use, preserve and share the bounty… but the squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. keep on coming and from personal experience, I can tell you that there are only so many cucumbers you can give to friends and still have them call you a friend.  While some gardeners compost the excess produce, many others simply let it rot in the garden or worse, throw it into the trash, adding to the waste stream and causing the release of methane gas as it decomposes – contributing to climate change.

According to 2009 statistics from the USDA, 49 million Americans are food insecure – this means that 1 out 6  people either do not have enough food or they are at real risk of not having enough food for their families.  After hearing numbers like billions and trillions thrown about by government officials, it is somewhat easy to start to think that 49 million as just another number.  To put it in perspective,  if you took the combined populations of Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia, 23 of our 50 states and added together, you’d have around 49 million hungry or nearly hungry people.   This includes one in four (or one in three if Hispanic) American children below the age of six.

Back in 1939, the “Food Stamps Plan”, an early precursor to SNAP, was rolled out under the Roosevelt Administration, both to meet the critical food needs of low income people as well as to help smooth out the market place for those commodities that were deemed a surplus.  The program was phased out four years later when these agricultural surpluses were no longer abundant.

Today, SNAP is the nation’s largest government food assistance program, enabling more than 47 million people to purchase food at a nearby store.  More than half of these people also turn to a food pantry to help sustain their family for at least part of the year. Like the rest of us who watch our pennies, SNAP beneficiaries are often confronted with the problem that the cost of fresh food is often higher than that of processed food.  To make matters worse, food stores in some communities have little or no fresh food whatsoever for sale, leaving millions of American families to rely exclusively on canned produce usually processed with salt or sugar – both of which have long term health consequences.
In May 2009, a nationwide program called the AmpleHarvest.org Campaign was created to enable gardeners who grow fruit, vegetables, herbs or nuts to share their excess harvest with a local food pantry – easily found at www.AmpleHarvest.org or with the free AmpleHarvest iPhone and Android apps.

Recognized by the White House, Google, Newman’s Own, the faith community and countless others along with extensive media coverage, nearly 6,000 food pantries across all 50 states are now receiving garden fresh produce from local backyard gardeners who use AmpleHarvest.org.

This one of a kind program has garnered an enthusiastic response nationwide.  For example, “Within one hour of registering Community Resource Center on the AmpleHarvest.org website I received a call from a local family of four with 10 orange trees. I spoke with the mother of the family and she said that until she heard of AmpleHarvest.org her family was spending time cleaning up rotten fruit off the ground. Now her family can spend time harvesting fruit to give to low income families in their community. Since speaking with her, she has dropped off 8 large bags full of locally grown oranges”

AmpleHarvest.org has quickly created a critical mass and accomplished resounding success because it does something the American food banks cannot do – enable America’s food pantries to receive freshly grown local produce.  The food bank network expertly moves an immense amount of food to the people that need it but the system was designed only for processed food.  It is neither fast nor diverse enough to handle locally sourced fresh food.
While tens of millions of growers across America do not know that they could or should donate excess food, nor where to donate it, tens of thousands of food pantries do not know they can accept fresh food or that it even exists in their own community. AmpleHarvest.org solves this problem and several others by moving information instead of food.

AmpleHarvest.org’s solution results in food pantry clients getting produce fresher than the food normally found in high end grocery stores.  This is accomplished by enabling the growers to harvest and donate the food within hours of when the food pantry clients will take it home – an innovative solution that works because AmpleHarvest.org is built around the idea of “just in time inventory”.  Furthermore, the model alleviates food pantries’ fears of needing more storage space or refrigeration were they to accept fresh food.  This all happens because AmpleHarvest.org connects the dots.

Providing fresh produce to local food pantries offers a number of benefits to both the recipient as well as the community.  Not only is fresh produce healthier than canned (no excess salt or sugar in the diet) goods, it tastes a lot better, has a much smaller carbon footprint and has eye appeal too!  Children, given the opportunity to enjoy fresh veggies are more likely to eat a healthier diet as they get older and quickly learn that apples do not normally come pre-sliced in cellophane.

Lastly, by helping to feed the neighbors in our community instead of throwing the excess away, America reduces its waste stream as well as the cost of keeping people from going hungry – all because an ample harvest was given to a pantry and not wasted. AmpleHarvest.org has been so exciting to people around the world that the model is now being replicated with our assistance by food bank networks in other countries.

Despite the innovation and impact of AmpleHarvest.org, the biggest challenge has been the support needed to sustain and grow the program not because it is too costly (quite the contrary) and not because it has not shown any impact (also quite the contrary – see our national map at www.AmpleHarvest.org/map) but because it is so innovative that it is outside the scope of what traditional food funding organizations support.  The other challenge AmpleHarvest.org has encountered is the perception that, because it is an Internet based solution to hunger, it costs nothing to operate.  Of course if you look at eBay, Google or iTunes, you quickly realize that behind every extraordinary Internet based solution are hardworking professionals that make things work.  And so it is with AmpleHarvest.org.   With a budget of pennies per year per hungry American annually, AmpleHarvest.org is by far the most cost efficient way of eliminating malnutrition and food waste in America.  And with an end goal of “no food left behind”, it is also eminently doable.

All it takes is an Ample Harvest – and a heart.

The AmpleHarvest.org Campaign, built to take advantage of excess food much as the “food stamps plan” did decades ago, complements SNAP by helping this fresh food get to the people with least access to it.  While AmpleHarvest.org relies on the Internet to make the connection, the success of the program is predicated on participation by people in communities across America.  As more food pantries register at AmpleHarvest.org, more gardeners across the country will be able to share their harvest, and garden by garden, hunger in America will be eliminated.
Here are some ways you can help AmpleHarvest.org help your community:

  • If you know of a food pantry in your community, possibly in your house of worship, please visit www.AmpleHarvest.org/add for information on helping the pantry join the AmpleHarvest.org Campaign.
  • If you belong to a community organization, please share with the other members, information about AmpleHarvest.org and urge them to share the information with their network of friends and family nationwide.
  • Urge your local print and electronic news/media outlets to do a story about AmpleHarvest.org.  Press and media information is available at www.AmpleHarvest.org/press
  • If you grow food in a home garden and harvest more than you can use, preserve or give away, please use AmpleHarvest.org to find a local pantry eager for your excess harvest
  • If you belong to a community garden or CSA, please let the other members know that they can donate excess food.  Post the flier at www.AmpleHarvest.org/CSA
  • Ask your business to sponsor an AmpleHarvest.org Virtual Food Drive wherein donations end hunger for good.  Learn  more at www.AmpleHarvest.org/VirtualFoodDrive
  • Share the 2 sided/1 page flier at www.AmpleHarvest.org/gardenshop with a local garden shop or nursery
  • Lastly, this Holiday Season, instead of putting flowers on the table, put out a basket of whole fruit.  After the dinner, donate the fruit to a local food pantry.  Visit www.AmpleHarvest.org/holiday to learn more.

There is a story about a man who falls into a deep hole and keeps calling out for help.  A number of people walk by, hear the man ask for help and, with some pity, they tell him that while they’d like to help, the hole is too deep – and they walk on.

Finally another person walks by and looks down.  The now exhausted and dispirited man again asks for help in getting out…. only to be told that the hole is too deep to help pull him out.  Instead of walking away however, this person jumps into the hole alongside the man.
“Are you a fool?  Now we’re both down here in the hole”.
“Yes we are” was the response, “and together, we’ll figure a way out”.
We live in a country where one in six people are in a hole and as long as any American is in a hole, we all are.

By empowering growers nationwide to reach into their backyards to help their food insecure neighbors, AmpleHarvest.org is helping America find its way out of the hole.

Learn more at: www.AmpleHarvest.org/FAQ

 

 

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