AmpleHarvest.org, West Milford, New Jersey
[Press Release IHH 2012] [About IHH Award]
AmpleHarvest.org is a nationwide campaign to enable America’s 40 million home gardeners to easily share some of their food harvest with local food pantries. It’s a technology solution that educates, empowers, and connects home gardeners and local food pantries, which are often tiny operations with little virtual presence. By enrolling with AmpleHarvest.org, they become visible to home gardeners searching for a place to donate extra produce, thereby creating a national movement that has the power to greatly impact hunger. Founder Gary Oppenheimer is a 2012 recipient of the Elfenworks In Harmony with Hope award.
About Founder Gary Oppenheimer
“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.” So begins the classic Shaker tune that comes to mind when one considers the simplistic beauty of AmpleHarvest.org, a national effort to easily connect America’s 42 million home gardeners who grow more food than they can eat or give away to friends, with local food pantries eager for their excess garden bounty.
In 2009, Gary Oppenheimer, a Master Gardener and self-proclaimed computer geek (he developed an email program prototype in 1977), was working with a group called Sustainable West Milford, where he directed their community garden plot. He saw how many of the plots were left unharvested because their owners (and all their friends) couldn’t possibly eat all the food they had grown. And then he thought about the one in six Americans who don’t have enough to eat—and he hit on the idea to create a database and a national awareness program that would help those looking for places close to home with which to share their garden produce find the small food pantries that are tucked away in church basements and which don’t have the technological know-how or budget to advertise their existence. Oppenheimer was so enthused by his concept for a supply-side channel to bring food to the hungry that just seven weeks after he conceived it, AmpleHarvest.org was up and running.
AmpleHarvest.org is making food pantries visible to the communities in which they quietly exist. Today, five years later, about 7,000 (as of August 2014) food pantries—one out of every five in America—have joined AmpleHarvest.org’s site, which is intuitive and easy to navigate and provides a wealth of information. Many of these food pantries are tiny and operate by word of mouth. They are not wired into the digital network and don’t have Yellow Page listings; the people who need food find them but it is harder for those wanting to share fresh produce to locate them. Oppenheimer has made it his mission to ferret out every small food pantry in the country, validate them, and add them to his database, which is easily accessible by the more than 42 million home gardeners in the country. All a gardener has to do is access the site, type in his/her zip code, view the listing of nearby “hidden” food pantries, and drive their excess bounty to the proximate pantry.
For their part, pantries, which have had to make do with the traditional canned and boxed goods they receive from larger food banks, are thrilled to have access to an assortment of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables. Gardeners feel the joy that comes from giving back and, as they’re protected under the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act signed under President Clinton, they can donate without fear of legal reprisal. As an added bonus, donations of food to a food pantry are tax deductible and AmpleHarvest.org provides a receipt that the grower can use for tax purposes.
AmpleHarvest.org is serving another important purpose: it is reducing environmental pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared food waste an environmental hazard. That’s because thrown-away food is not only wasteful; it ends up in a landfill where it decomposes and creates methane, a gas 20 times more harmful to the environment that CO2. Additionally, every item of fresh produce donated to a food pantry by proximate neighbors reduces the need to truck a similar boxed item into the community. Less shipping reduces the pantry’s carbon footprint.
And then there are the social benefits of community members helping each other, and doing it anonymously.
“I think AmpleHarvest.org has the power to be a game changer,” comments environmental policy expert Shana Starobin. She’s so convinced of it that, shortly after meeting Oppenheimer, she agreed to join the board of his fledgling organization. “Gary’s solution struck me in the head as a game-changing solution. AmpleHarvest.org is where it’s at. Gary’s unstoppable. I’ve worked with a lot of social entrepreneurs but he’s relentless, in a really good way,” she continued.
Starobin lends her expertise in collecting data and creating metrics for future growth and expansion. Oppenheimer, who hashed it out on his own for the first year or so, has pulled together a working board with expertise that complements his—in civic engagement, fundraising, hunger issues, and agricultural policy. They aren’t just lending their name but are actively working with Oppenheimer to grow AmpleHarvest.org and guide its future direction. He emails them daily and they meet by phone once every month.
Oppenheimer equally impressed Wendy Worden, the fundraising consultant who serves as a member of the board: “He’s quite spectacular. The energy he has is amazing. He never stops coming up with ideas. Just knowing he’s making a difference is a huge motivator. He’s the locomotive behind the train.”
In five short years, AmpleHarvest.org has created a national movement that has the power to impact hunger in this country. In the first few years, AmpleHarvest.org used surveys and statistical sampling to estimate the amount of food donated. While the total had exceeded 30 million pounds by late 2012, they’ve shifted the metric of impact from how much food is donated to how much opportunity is created for food to be donated. This change was based on the fact that pantries often couldn’t weigh the food and the fact that the weight of fresh food doesn’t always correlate to the number of people nourished (think how many people are fed by 10 pounds water melon vs. 10 pounds of spinach).
Studies indicate that 100 billion pounds (worth about $161 billion in 2010) of food is lost every year in this country—enough to feed every hungry American. As part of his goal of “No Food Left Behind,” Oppenheimer is determined to unite those who have excess food with those who go without enough to eat in a simple and streamlined fashion.
He is a master networker and has connected with a wide variety of individuals and organizations to better leverage his message, including the First Lady’s Let’s Move! program at the White House, the TEDx conference leaders, and Google. He’s also collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the AARP, United Way, the National Council of Churches, and none other than 2008 IHH honoree Robert Egger’s Campus Kitchens Project, among many others. Google and BV wines have become AmpleHarvest.org’s largest supporters to date.
Oppenheimer has also leveraged technology to streamline the organization’s efforts as much as possible. The organization’s Internet Service Provider is 100% wind-powered, showcasing their commitment to walk the talk.
For his efforts, Oppenheimer has received some notable recognition. He has been named a CNN Hero and a Points of Light tribute award winner, TEDx and Google Tech Talks speaker, Huffington Post’s “Greatest Person of the Day,” and a Huffington Post’s 2011 “Game Changer.” In 2014, the Clinton Foundation selected AmpleHarvest.org to be part of their Health Matters Initiative. Most recently, he was nominated by Vint Cerf (“Father of the Internet”) for the World Food Prize.
As broad and impactful as the program is, the organization is still in its infancy. “From a funding perspective, AmpleHarvest.org is an upside-down pyramid. It’s got the publicity and endorsements many organizations will probably never get thereby making many people think that AmpleHarvest.org doesn’t need support, when in fact fundraising is the organization’s greatest challenge.
Their budget for staff and technology and core operating for this national program costs is a very lean $500,000. One of the key reasons costs are so low is that they have fully distributed the logistics—they don’t buy, store or ship food but they instead get the food already in the community to the need also in the community.
GleaningHharvest.org is Oppenheimer’s next project. Just like AmpleHarvest.org, it will connect two constituencies: groups willing and able to glean un-harvested fields and those who need their fields harvested.
Oppenheimer’s ultimate goal is to have AmpleHarvest.org cease to exist—when wasted food and hunger are no longer issues in our country. Then, he will know that his simple idea really did create change that worked.