“We couldn’t sell the potatoes, and we couldn’t move them, either,” sad Hess, a farmer at Fall River Farms.
He donated what he could, but the cost to pack the produce and ship it to food banks was too high, especially considering the massive financial loss the family farm, which goes back four generations, was already suffering.
As Hess’s pile of wasted potatoes slowly started to rot, stomachs rumbled across the country.
Food banks in the United States are grappling with unprecedented need — a direct symptom of widespread unemployment, as roughly 16 percent of Americans are still without a paycheck. In 30 percent of U.S. households that have lost income because of the coronavirus, meals have been missed and families have relied heavily on food handouts.
James Kanoff, 21, a sophomore at Stanford University, took note of the troubling paradox: Farms have a surplus of food from canceled restaurant contracts and a shattered supply chain, while food banks are experiencing a staggering surge in demand.
The supply of produce was there, said Kanoff, and so was the demand for it — but the link connecting the two was missing.
So Kanoff and a group of college students from Stanford and Brown universities started FarmLink, a grass-roots movement to prevent food waste while also working to address food insecurity. FarmLink raises money to pay farmers for produce and dairy that would otherwise be wasted, then funds the transportation to send the goods to food banks in the neediest areas around the country.
Since it started in mid-April, FarmLink has delivered 2 million pounds of produce, including some of Hess’s potatoes, to hungry Americans, in just over a month.
That’s roughly 1.5 million meals.
Volunteers have delivered potatoes, eggs, milk, onions, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, salt, celery, carrots and sweet potatoes to communities in 22 states, including Hawaii — with no plans to stop, even after the pandemic ends.
What started as an idea born in Kanoff’s Los Angeles bedroom rapidly flourished into a fully functioning operation with over 100 full-time student volunteers. Through social media campaigns and word of mouth, the initiative has raised more than $750,000 — mostly from small, individual donations.
Kanoff grew up volunteering at Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica. When he heard the organization’s food supply was scarce, he decided to test the FarmLink concept by reaching out to a local farm and asking if it had an oversupply.
That’s when Shay Myers, the CEO of Owyhee Produce, became one of the first farmers to participate in the FarmLink project. Myers operates onion farms in Idaho, Oregon and California.
“We lost 95 percent of our food service business,” he said. “We ended up having more than 12 million pounds of wasted onions. We’re talking a pile that is 20 feet wide by 10 feet high, running for several hundred yards.”
Farmers all around the United States are experiencing a major surplus — from thousands of acres of fresh fruits and vegetables in Florida and California, to millions of gallons of milk and countless eggs in Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.
Once Kanoff and his team secured 90,000 pounds of Myers’s onions, they reached out to Food Finders, a nonprofit food rescue organization that connects donated food to hundreds of pantries in Southern California.
Food Finders soon became FarmLink’s fiscal sponsor, allowing the organization to accept tax-deductible donations. Every dollar donated to FarmLink goes directly toward purchasing the excess produce and paying the wages of truckers and farmworkers.
“What FarmLink does falls directly in line with what we do, so it was a natural program that we wanted to bring into our organization,” said Diana Lara, the executive director of Food Finders.
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving $3 billion to farms to transfer surplus products to food banks, many of those farms do not have the necessary resources to actually find and connect with the food banks that are the most in need, Lara said.
“The problem with the government programs is that the farms are not in the business of sourcing food banks,” said Lara. “It’s also a complicated registration process to secure the aid.”
FarmLink is helping to bridge the gap. USDA distributors, including Borden Dairy, have started reaching out to FarmLink directly for assistance in finding food banks in need and distributing surplus product, Kanoff said.
The burgeoning organization has divided its volunteers into three specializations: the farms team locates farms with excess supply, the logistics team targets hot spots with the greatest food insecurity, and the food banks team connects directly with local pantries across the country to assess demand. The organization also has sponsorships with Uber Freight and Coyote Logistics, to assist with transporting the goods.
FarmLink’s work has made an impact on some of the hardest-hit regions of the country, including Navajo Nation at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, which has eclipsed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the United States.
Nathan Lynch, a site coordinator at Navajo Nation Christian Response Team, said FarmLink sent him 40,000 pounds of potatoes, straight from Hess’s surplus. Now, shipments of potatoes are being transported to Lynch and his team every 10 days.
Lynch, who delivers emergency food boxes to 2,000 homes on the reserve, said the food insecurity in the region is pervasive. “FarmLink has filled a big void for us,” he said.
And it’s done the same for many people in Compton, Calif.
Cynthia Macon, who runs community affairs at United Hands of Compton, said the need for food in the city has multiplied at least 20-fold since the pandemic struck.
“It’s impossible to even put a number on it,” said Macon. “The line for the food bank is filled with more than 3,000 people a day, wrapping around at least 20 blocks.”
For Macon and her small team, FarmLink is “truly our wish come true,” she said.
FarmLink volunteers have recently doubled the amount of food they deliver and are now up to 500,000 pounds per week. The response teams are also working to support communities facing unrest and curfews amid protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, which have exacerbated an already severe food insecurity problem.
“The biggest challenge in all of this is the logistics. Having a single contact point is so significant in helping all parties involved,” said Myers, who runs Owyhee Produce.
The long-term vision for FarmLink is to form a lasting model to address food waste and serve struggling communities in the United States and abroad, with the ultimate goal of connecting local farmers with local food banks.
“I feel so inspired by all the people who have come out to help; everyone from donors and volunteers, to farmers and truck drivers,” said Kanoff. “For me, it’s incredibly humbling. This project has given me a ton of hope.”
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