AmpleHarvest.org creator Gary Oppenheimer is on a mission to reduce food waste while helping disadvantaged families get access to fresh produce.
The longtime tech-world veteran has been working since 2009 on a nonprofit called AmpleHarvest.org built around the website of the same name, creating a resource to connect local growers like community gardens and backyard gardeners with food pantries where they can donate their excess produce to put food that would otherwise get thrown out to use while providing nutritious fruits and vegetables for those who need them.
“My grandparents always told me to finish what’s on my plate,” Oppenheimer recalled. “I learned from a young age not to waste food.”
According to the USDA, about 30-40 percent of the food supply is wasted. About 133 billion pounds of food was lost in 2010 at the retail and consumer levels according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
A member of the American Horticultural Society’s Master Gardener program, Oppenheimer said the idea for the project came from a meeting in 2008, where he met with a group in his town to discuss donating excess produce from a community garden to a local food pantry.
Oppenheimer’s idea was to have a similar system but scaled to a national level.
With a background as a software developer and programmer, creating a website was a natural fit for Oppenheimer’s plan. The internet’s ability to connect people dovetailed perfectly with AmpleHarvest.org’s mission to get gardeners in touch with local emergency food services without any extra help needed on the website’s part.
“Our modus operandi is to educate, enable, and then get out of the way,” Oppenheimer said.
It’s hard to get an exact number on how much food has been donated because of AmpleHarvest.org, but there are currently more than 8,200 food pantries in the U.S. registered on the site.
Oppenheimer said that word of mouth has been a big factor in spreading the message for the nonprofit.
“Gardeners don’t have the least bit of aversion to donating food,” he said, adding that once a grower is set up with their local pantry, they become a vector for that information, and don’t even need the website to continue spreading the word.
For example, one gardener who connects with a pantry on AmpleHarvest.org can tell another gardener in their community to go to the same pantry, without the second gardener ever knowing that AmpleHarvest.org was how the initial connection took place.
This model is also environmentally efficient, Oppenheimer pointed out.
“The food doesn’t have to travel across the state or the country,” he said, adding that the leftover produce would ideally make its way from growers to food assistance services to hungry families within hours or days.
He added that he had seen children from disadvantaged communities experience fresh produce for the first time, with kids learning “that apples don’t come pre-sliced in cellophane.”
“The endgame is a healthier planet and healthier people, at no cost to the community,” Oppenheimer said.
And their job is far from over. According to No Kid Hungry, over 13 million children in the U.S. live in homes that are food insecure.
“An estimated 12.3 percent of American households were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2016, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” said a USDA economic research report from September.
Now, working with a remote staff across the country, Oppenheimer is working to continue furthering AmpleHarvest.org’s mission. He’s largely focusing on fundraising to increase outreach for the website.
Backyard gardeners, Oppenheimer said, are one of the biggest challenges to reach, particularly if they’re not part of a garden club.
To help further promote the concept of reducing food waste and hunger at the same time, Oppenheimer has started a project called Food Waste Weekend, working with faith communities to promote food donations.
“The lack of fresh food for families is a symptom of food waste,” said Oppenheimer. “My belief is that we should be using all of the food we grow – if we have the food, someone should be eating it.”
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