Interview with Gary Oppenheimer, Executive Director and Founder of AmpleHarvest.org
Gary Oppenheimer is the Executive Director and Founder of AmpleHarvest.org. As director of a community garden in 2009, he learned about the wasted food in many plots and created a local program called “Ample Harvest” to get the excess food to local food pantries. This program grew into a national, web based solution called AmpleHarvest.org, which uses the internet to educate, encourage and enable gardeners nationwide to share their harvest with 7,093 (as of late 2014) local food pantries – for the rest of their gardening life.
What inspired you to get involved in food? How did AmpleHarvest.org evolve into what it is today?
“Finish what’s on your plate because kids are starving in Europe.” As a first generation American whose parents escaped from Germany, I grew up in the fifties with that. And since then it’s been “China” and “India” and during the Johnson administration-“Appalachia.” I was inculcated with the idea that food is something you don’t waste because somebody else is hungry. It made no sense to me at the time. I said, “Give them the food” but that didn’t fly with my grandmother. As a result, I use resources judiciously – today I apply that to food, time, emotions, energy and money. I’m very aware of resources and I think most people should be- but for me it’s second nature.
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In 2008 I knew a woman in my town of West Milford, New Jersey who ran a battered women’s shelter. I asked if I could bring food over to the shelter. A very nice woman, answered the door, took the two bags of food, she said ‘thank you, now we can have some fresh food.” I hadn’t heard or expected that. Around the same time I was asked to take over a community garden. When I met with the people from the garden, they said, “a lot of food gets wasted.” People would get bored, go on vacations, and we’re losing a lot of food. My response was, “if we’re going to have an ample harvest, the least we can do is give it to people who need it.”
I didn’t know that was the tipping point for a major change in America’s food safety net, but they loved the idea. They created a committee and I set out to find pantries in my town. I knew there were multiple pantries but I couldn’t find them on Google. I realized that if I was having a problem finding them, others were too. I wasn’t thinking of hunger. I was focused on the resource, not the need. The thrust of what needed to be done was not feeding hungry people, but ensuring resources get used. We’re on the push rather than the pull side.
After that, I bought the domain AmpleHarvest.org. Once I’d spend the money to buy the domain, I was screwed because I hate waste, and certainly couldn’t let those $9 go unused. I realized I needed to actually do something with it. I sat down to outline what I thought I could do, like when you start writing a poem and you don’t know where it will go. I ended up in good part with what AmpleHarvest.org is today, in one sitting. With the help of a web designer and a data programmer, the website was built in 4-5 weeks. I realized there were two tiers of this model: I had to get pantries to register than then connect them to gardeners. Then Jonathan Bloom blogged about us on his website wastedfood.com and we were on the map. I started calling up food banks using Feeding America’s listings, asking them to spread the word to their pantries, and 150 days later 1000 pantries were in the system. Today there are 7,093 pantries registered in all 50 states.
Can you summarize the impact of AmpleHarvest.org? Would you like to share a recent success?
It was successful the first time somebody donated food to a pantry. A bag of carrots that was not thrown away, but donated; that was a success. Everything after that simply built on that. There have been successes since then- on the program side we are just shy of 7100 pantries across all 50 states. According to the USDA we are the largest national registry of agencies like that. We have partnered with the USDA and the White House and I have even managed to bridge the divide between the political right and left. I just addressed a national conference of Master Gardeners and next year I’m addressing the international Master Gardener’s conference. I was named CNN Hero in 20210 and was nominated for the World Food Prize in May, with lots of other awards and accolades between the two.
The reality is that this is not about us. It’s about the growers. Being a viral program – we are focused on enabling 42 million growers to put their bounty to the highest possible use. Even though everyone applauds AmpleHarvest.org, the spotlight belongs to the growers.
It’s like asking Leonard Bernstein if he made great music. In reality, he didn’t. He waved a stick – the musicians made the music. In the same way, we’re enabling people to do something they didn’t think they could do without us.
The program is doing what any program should be doing: fixing a problem. Every time a gardener learns that they can now donate food and connect with a pantry, that becomes is one less source of wasted food in this country. The environmental benefit us huge plus it can help lower government expenditures on the long run – both for health care and support programs. If you use the food you have, you don’t need to buy as much food, which means that USDA and other government entities could eventually reduce expenditures on food programs.
How active is AmpleHarvest.org in New York City? Have you encountered any special challenges in urban settings?
There are 9 million growers in urban settings – urban gardening is big. People donate to the pantries across New York City that are a part of AmpleHarvest.org. I have a bountiful garden and I routinely come into the City on Wednesdays. Two months ago I came in with two hefty bags filled with greens: kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, and beets. I went to the New York Common Pantry on 109th Street and they were delighted to get it. I think there was a perception – Joel Berg and I have had a discussion on this – that this doesn’t fit in an urban setting. I think it fits in any setting. You don’t have to be a gardener. For example, instead of a floral centerpiece on my Thanksgiving table, we had a basket of apples and homegrown squash, which I then donated, to a pantry the next day (something we encourage everyone to do – learn more at www.AmpleHarvest.org/holiday. Anybody hosting a wedding, bar mitzvah or corporate event can do the same thing. I would guess that more suburban and rural people know about AmpleHarvest.org, but you don’t have to be a gardener to connect with pantries and donate food. And oh yeah, you also can get a tax write off for the food donation.
What does the future of AmpleHarvest.org look like? What do you hope to achieve?
Our critical need is for support – financial support, talent, board members, and oh yea…. financial support. Google is our biggest supporter with $480K/year of free Adwords and Beaulieu Vineyard and Gardener’s Supply Company are our biggest cash supporters. Foundation support has included Newman’s Own, Broadway Cares, Ittleson, Good People Fund and a few others. Corporate sponsors will be the key to our success. Other foundations have been the biggest challenge because AmpleHarvest.org, as innovative as it is, doesn’t look or act like the food programs they are used to, which is good because we’re not. Rather than just feed people, AmpleHarvest.org works to eliminate wasted fresh food, which in turn ultimately nourishes people (and helps the environment) at no cost to the food donor.
The funding works to cement the success, and most importantly, replace me as chief bottle washer/cook to with someone who is really good at washing bottles – and cooking. We have 3 ½ staff for a nationwide program. We should be 7-12 people and the hope is that a corporate supporter or individual or foundation steps in and says, “We really like what you’re doing. You’re not fitting traditional models and we’re going to get engaged and get involved.”
What is really amazing is that due to the efficiency of the model, how little money is actually needed to accomplish this wholesale change of our food system. I often tell people our budget is 5 minutes of Feeding America’s annual budget, but in reality, it might be closer to 4 minutes and 30 seconds or so.
In 2015 I expect to see a 20% growth in the number of food pantries that can receive fresh food. That’s critical. It’s not about seeing another pantry open next door to an existing one – we’re working to see more dispersed across the country. Someone interested in donating food should be able to see a pantry within a 20-minute drive because no one is going to drive three hours to donate food. A good distribution of pantries is really important. I’d also like to continue to get the word out, continue to do more speaking engagements (visit www.AmpleHarvest.org/speaker to learn more).
Can you speak to the health impact of your work at AmpleHarvest.org?
If you need to feed your family through the American food safety net, by and large food pantries are stocked with processed food, mostly corporate donations and commodity food. It’s not like going to a supermarket and choosing a salad or a TV dinner. You don’t have a choice. They almost never have fresh food.
Part of the consequence is that we have a country where one in three kids will be diabetic and we are quickly moving to one of every two. I heard recently that 75% of the young people who apply to the military are not fit to serve.
The combined cost of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (not including the NIH numbers on the cost of research) tops $1.03 trillion. I wanted to highlight that the economic impact is not insignificant. That’s really a big, frightening number about which we should all be thinking, and it’s a global issue.
When you start getting some healthier food into a system largely devoid of it, you start seeing improvements in health. You get people healthier food, maybe get kids learning that apples don’t come pre-sliced in cellophane or maybe that potatoes are better than potato chips and maybe you improve the wellbeing of the country.
Come to AmpleHarvest.org and make a tax-deductible contribution: $5, $50 whatever you can afford. Tell your company marketing people and corporate responsibility folks about our work. Also, tell everyone you know in your social networking circles about AmpleHarvest.org.
Every dollar donated is another concrete step towards assuring that extra fresh food we have is made available to those with the least access to it, and that we start reversing the onslaught of childhood obesity and Type II diabetes.
The key thing about the money is that it’s used to help get more food pantries get more food to more growers- it breaks a cycle, fixes a flaw. Effectively we’re replacing the roof; we’re not buying more buckets.
And we need your help to do that.
Watch Gary’s TEDx Manhattan Talk “AmpleHarvest.org- Changing the Way We Eat” and his Google Talk at www.AmpleHarvest.org/GoogleTalk.
Hometown: Yonkers NY, then (1978) the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan
Current Location: West Milford NJ
Education: BS in Psychology, which pretty much accurately described the degree.
Favorite food: buttered roll and a home grown salad, accompanied by a Riesling. Or my grandmothers streusel chuchen.
What’s the last food policy book or article you read?: Both the NRDC 2012 report on Food Waste and the 2015 USDA report on Food Waste.