Meet Gary Oppenheimer of AmpleHarvest.org
Gary Oppenheimer is the force behind AmpleHarvest.org, a nationwide nonprofit aimed at diminishing home and community garden food waste, which results in significantly reduced hunger and malnutrition while improving the environment. This extraordinary, straightforward crusade makes it easy for millions of Americans with gardens — whether in New York, Illinois or California — to swiftly locate nearby food pantries that can make use of their excess backyard bounty. Gary and AmpleHarvest.org have been recognized by CNN Heroes, Points of Light, the White House, ABC News Best Person in the World, PBS’s “Growing a Greener World” (see video to the right) and, most recently, Gary was nominated for the World Food Prize. Read on to find out what inspires Gary, what led him to create AmpleHarvest.org and what he would change about our food system to make it more sustainable.
Tell us about the important role AmpleHarvest.org plays in connecting home gardeners and growers with local food pantries?
AmpleHarvest.org is the only nationwide program of its kind, focusing on the food waste no one ever noticed … the food in our own backyards. All food waste efforts were focused on farm-to-table food, yet 35 percent of all households engage in home or community gardening. We all know about the co-worker who wanted to pawn off their extra tomatoes on us, but no one ever noticed that the food pantry down the street never had fresh food for their own clients — our neighbors in need. AmpleHarvest.org was designed to redirect that excess bounty from the annoyed office space where the food is not really needed to the food pantry clients who most need it — once a gardener knows that they can donate (and how they can donate) their excess food, they will continue to do so on a lifelong and sustainable basis. It’s that simple. See our TED talk at www.AmpleHarvest.org/TED to learn more and our garden food waste white paper at www.AmpleHarvest.org/study to see how big the opportunity turned out to be.
When and how did you get involved in this work?
I founded AmpleHarvest.org in 2009 because I hate waste. I grew up with “finish what’s on your plate … kids are starving in Europe.” When I grasped the issue of garden food waste (especially my own) and realized that I could use education and technology to fix it, it was a no-brainer. What amazed me was that no one had ever done it before, and worse, that no one ever even saw the problem before.
What makes food waste and food recovery such pressing issues?
That’s like asking what makes fixing the leak in a bottom of a boat so important. You can, of course, keep bailing water, but as long as the water keeps coming in, you struggle. Patch the leak and you can soon stop worrying about sinking. Similarly, we can grow more food — using more land, more energy, more money and more time, or we can start using the food we have. To me, fixing the problem first means we don’t have to forever keep responding to it.
How can technology help reduce food waste and hunger and, in general, make the food system more sustainable?
The two leading causes of food waste are lack of information and lack of capacity to act once you have information. AmpleHarvest.org solves both by first helping people understand that the days of “Jars, Cans Boxes — No Fresh Food” at food drives has come to an end, and secondly, by acting as a nationwide food pantry search engine to help them actually donate the food.
What are some specific ways people can fight food waste and hunger?
First and foremost, support AmpleHarvest.org with a tax deductible donation, which will help us get more gardeners donating more excess food to more food pantries across America.
An analysis by an outside economist who reviewed our data four years ago calculated — with our then budget of $660,000 — that $20 million worth of fresh food was donated, generating a $172 million impact on the health of the nation. That is an amazing return on investment. And AmpleHarvest.org’s “foodprint” has significantly grown since then.
Gardeners are harvesting 11 billion pounds of food a year more than they can use — enough to feed 28 million Americans. AmpleHarvest.org is giving them the opportunity to increase the availability of fresh food for hungry families, and they are excited about that opportunity. Indeed, our most recent study determined that half of the gardeners would actually grow more food explicitly for donation once they got connected with a nearby food pantry.
Imagine how far your donation to AmpleHarvest.org could go in reducing that waste and helping 28 million people, for good.
What’s one thing about food waste that you wish more people knew?
It’s impact on the environment. To put it in perspective, the three largest contributors to climate change are America, China and food waste.
Not only is food that is never consumed creating problems, but the additional food we need to grow or manufacture to replace the wasted food further adds to the environmental impact in the form of packaging that enters the waste stream, energy and water lost in the growing/manufacturing, as well as transporting it, etc.
Locally grown, freshly harvested food travels the shortest distance in the shortest amount of time. It’s that simple. It also means the clients get the food at the start of its shelf life which reduces the likelihood that it will spoil in their home and ultimately become that dreaded food waste.
What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day-to-day?
It’s typically 60 to 90 seconds into a discussion on AmpleHarvest.org when people’s eyes dilate and I can see that they “got it.” As American singer-songwriter Jen Chapin described AmpleHarvest.org, “simply beautiful and beautifully simple.”
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the food system?
Although this is not part of AmpleHarvest.org’s mission, I would revise how restaurants operate by having them reduce the portion size by 50 percent, the price by 33 percent, and offer a second serving, if requested, for free. Less food wasted, less plated food going to waste, reduced costs for the consumer and lower inventory costs for the restaurant. Like many of my ideas, it’s simple to do, nearly free to implement, but would have far reaching impact on food waste, the nation’s health and the environment. In short, the reduction in food waste (i.e. less money wasted) at the restaurant results in a saving that can benefit both the patron and the proprietor. Plus table turnover would be improved, also helping the restaurants’ profits.
I’ll leave that to someone in the restaurant industry to work on. AmpleHarvest.org remains focused on ending the waste of excess food harvested in 42 million home and community gardens — food that always should have, and, instead, now finally can, nourish a hungry family in the community.
Keep up with Gary and AmpleHarvest.org: