“The healthy food we give to a child has an impact on their economic mobility going forward. A healthier family has more money, a better life, and less sickness. They have a lot of things working for them because they invested in their physical wellbeing.”
In May 2009, Gary Oppenheimer launched AmpleHarvest.org with a simple goal: connect gardeners with nearby food pantries. The CEO’s plan became the cornerstone of his pursuit of eliminating food waste while simultaneously delivering healthier food to impoverished Americans. In theory, food insecure families would become wealthier as a result of better health, he told Citizen Truth.
Health Equals Wealth
“The healthy food we give to a child has an impact on their economic mobility going forward,” Oppenheimer said. “A healthier family has more money, a better life, and less sickness. They have a lot of things working for them because they invested in their physical well being.”
“One out of every four kids is from a food insecure home,” Oppenheimer said he learned during one of his numerous visits with former First Lady Michelle Obama. The rate of diabetes is also soaring among children, which is “one disease you can do something about if you’re not born with it.”
Feeding impoverished kids healthier food can help children down the road. For example, three quarters of applicants to the US armed forces are denied, often because they are overweight. Years later, they may also be passed over for jobs that go to veterans, in a butterfly effect that began when they were young.
Healthier lifestyles could deliver up to $58 billion in healthcare savings for the US, Oppenheimer said, citing a CISCO report, if more food pantries switch to fresh food over processed, boxed, and canned supplies.
This year, COVID-19 has imperiled food insecure families as some food panties they rely on have opted to close their doors due to health concerns associated with the pandemic. Food pantries that have chosen to remain open continue to grapple with food and funding shortages, two problems made worse by a historic unemployment level, which has forced even more families into poverty, and by extension, a reliance on food assistance.
Turning to Gardening
Amid the dismal developments, Oppenheimer found a ray of hope as more Americans have embraced gardening. By growing their own food, they save money and consume less-processed foods. For AmpleHarvest.org, the uptick in Americans choosing to grow their own food translates to an opportunity to help out their neighbors by donating excess food to their local pantries.
The number of Americans taking up vegetable gardening has skyrocketed so much that retailers have struggled with keeping seeds in-stock, Oppenheimer said.
“You couldn’t buy seeds at Home Depot, Lowes,” he said. “Industry experts expect the number to fall a bit (after the pandemic ends), but we’re going to stay way past old gardening numbers.”
Online retailer ShrubBucket similarly experienced a drastic demand increase for plants — it witnessed a 1,200% year-over-year increase in sales, NBC News reported.
What’s more, there has been a demographic shift with more, younger men beginning to grow their own food.
“I really believe once you start gardening, you don’t give it up,” Oppenheimer said.
Food insecure Americans can even use their SNAP benefits to purchase seeds, a provision that Oppenheimer said even USDA employees are often unfamiliar with (more information can be found at SNAPGardens.org).
“The fact that number one, people got nervous about their food supply and tens of millions of people stoped commuting to work, meaning they have 10 extra hours free,” Oppenheimer said have helped encourage the practice.
An Information Problem
AmpleHarvest.org helps facilitate the easy transfer of excess food from gardeners to their local food pantries, making the most of the boost in vegetable gardening.
“Why should a food pantry in Georgia be getting peaches shipped from New Jersey when there are peaches in trees down the road they can’t use?” Oppenheimer asked. “It isn’t about the food — we don’t have a food problem, we have an information problem. The reason we don’t have fresh food (at food pantries) is because for years people were told not to bring that.”
AmpleHarvest.org has worked to change that by what Oppenheimer called “uberizing the system.”
“The food is no longer delivered last mile, its last inch. For all I know, food I donate could wind up on the dinner table of my next door neighbor who just got laid off and I didn’t even know.”
Oppenheimer’s ultimate goal has been to end food waste. To that end, AmpleHarvest.org created Faith Fights Food Waste, a program designed to provide religious leaders with food waste awareness materials such as sermons and lectures. The program offers Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Unitarian leaders materials they can tailor to preach food conservation to their congregations.
Bridging the Political Gap
From the onset, Oppenheimer created AmpleHarvest.org with the intention of keeping it apolitical. Although he is a self-described liberal Democrat living among a conservative, rural community, he said he made a concerted effort to stay above the political fold.
“It was important to me that this appealed to everybody,” Oppenheimer said. “Right off the bat, the important thing that we did was to make sure a gardener knows that they can grow and donate to local pantries.”
Doing so required walking a tightrope between liberals who are more “altruistic” and conservatives who tend to avoid programs commonly perceived as socialist. The solution AmpleHarvest.org discovered was to portray excess food as worthless.
“We had to present excess food as essentially worthless. You can’t use it or preserve it, therefore if it is worthless and it is not a transfer of wealth,” Oppenheimer said. “It is like donating to Goodwill.”
Oppenheimer and AmpleHarvest.org’s efforts to avoid playing politics has paid off. In 2014, the founder was honored with a George H. W. Bush Point of Light Award alongside former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Oppenheimer said he also visited the Obama White House on seven occasions.
“I managed to do it, bridge that gap,” he said.
The US Department of Agriculture under former President Barack Obama oversaw programs to reduce food waste, Oppenheimer added. USDA’s mission has continued unabated under President Donald Trump.
“It’s one of the issues both sides pretty much agree on,” Oppenheimer said. A service designed to reduce waste and help food insecure families is “local, doesn’t cost the government, and has potential to reduce tax burden” as some municipalities are charged waste disposal by the tonnage.
Insulated From Election Consequences
AmpleHarvest.org is a nonprofit that relies on financial support to operate, he said. It operates only in the US, although a dozen nations have inquired about creating similar programs abroad. To date, only Israel has managed to successfully pull it off.
“AmpleHarvest.org can’t be duplicated and must be unique to each [nation],” he said.
Looking beyond the Nov. 3 election, Oppenheimer isn’t concerned about the outcome affecting operations at AmpleHarvest.org.
“I don’t know that it’s going to make a whole lot of difference,” Oppenheimer said. “Right now, the country is experiencing an epidemic like the 21st century version of soup lines. “Regardless of who is in White House, we will recover and get past that.”
Oppenheimer chose to look at the positive side that a third more people are gardening; AmpleHarvest.org simply needs them to send excess food to their local food pantries instead of wasting it.