Picture this: A truck carrying produce is making deliveries to local a grocery store, but gets into a fender-bender on the way.
Everybody is OK, and the damage to the truck is minimal. But because of the accident, the grocery store set to receive the fresh fruits and vegetables can’t accept the delivery, even though the produce was not damaged.
Founded in 2009 by Gary Oppenheimer, the national nonprofit connects gardeners to their local food pantries, allowing the gardeners to donate their excess produce to those in need. It’s a win-win; the gardeners don’t waste any of their produce, while the pantries are able to offer their clients healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, which aren’t always easy to find on their can-filled shelves.
Since its launch, AmpleHarvest.org has been extremely successful, with more than 3,800 food pantries registered to receive donations from their neighbors with green thumbs.
But even Oppenheimer was surprised when he discovered that along with his fellow gardeners, insurance companies were using AmpleHarvest.org’s tools to find food pantries that would take produce from trucks involved in highway accidents.
Not that he’s complaining.
"There are lots of different areas where people are finding ways to make use of it," Oppenheimer tells The Inside Track of AmpleHarvest.org. "And from my perspective, whenever somebody comes up with a new way to use it, it’s a new opportunity."
Oppenheimer initially got the idea for AmpleHarvest.org at a meeting with fellow members of his local community garden. One gardener complained that much of the food in the garden was unused, and thus, wasted. "I said, ‘If we’re going to have an ample harvest, we might as well get it to the people in the community who need it. That’s how it rolled off my tongue," Oppenheimer recalls.
So, the one-time computer geek-turned-master gardener quickly registered for the web domain AmpleHarvest.org. Within a few months, the pieces for his new organization started coming together, as Oppenheimer began connecting local gardeners with their area food pantries via channels such as the National Gardeners Association. The word quickly spread.
Exactly 150 days after its launch, AmpleHarvest.org registered its 1,000th pantry. Coincidentally, it was World Food Day.
The nonprofit released an iPhone app in early 2010, making it easier for folks to find a local food pantry. In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invited AmpleHarvest.org to join the Peoples’ Garden Initiative, a nationwide effort that encourages community gardens.
Soon, the accolades started piling on. In May, Oppenheimer was named a CNN hero, and in November, was named the "Greatest Person of the Day" by the Huffington Post.
Oppenheimer thinks the reason for AmpleHarvest.org’s rapid popularity is that it provides a simple — and free — solution to the complex problem of hunger.
"Our opportunity to get fresh food to the people who least have access to it solves a whole host of problems in America. And on top of that, you feel good," Oppenheimer says. "You donate to a food pantry, someone in your neighborhood, maybe your next door neighbor, is going to be eating that food. You see the benefit."
Childhood obesity is one of the issues AmpleHarvest.org is working to combat, Oppenheimer says. So many children, especially kids whose parents are struggling to put food on the table, don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy produce. By connecting gardeners to pantries, AmpleHarvest.org is introducing children to foods they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.
"If corn gets onto the food pantry clients’ tables, six hours after being harvested… you got kids thinking they’re eating candy on the cob," Oppenheimer says. "Hopefully, they’ll decide it’s better than eating popcorn for example, or other things that are less desirable."
Often, the children find the experience of eating fresh fruits and veggies to be different than anything they’ve seen before, Oppenheimer says.
"I think kids that learn that they have to actually peel open a pod to get to the peas inside, it actually becomes fun to them," he adds. "You give a young child a fresh peach and let it dribble down their face, or pick a watermelon off and actually start eating it, that’s classic Tom Sawyer. It doesn’t get much better than that."
AmpleHarvest.org is also partnering with Dinnergarden.org to provide free seeds to people who want to grow their own garden. Those people then would give their excess produce to a local pantry.
"It’s perfect for the children, because again, you get the kids interested and hooked," he says.
AmpleHarvest.org continues to expand in other ways, including with a new pilot program called "Adopt-a-Pantry" which would place one individual in a community to take charge of registering a local pantry on the website and helping connect it to local gardeners. There’s also "Producepedia," which would provide documents that a gardener can print out and give to the pantry explaining what his donation is and what to do with it.
"One of the challenges we have is that gardeners like to grow weird things," Oppenheimer says, laughing.
For his part, Oppenheimer says he enjoys growing tomatoes and potatoes in his own New Jersey garden. "Tomatoes, because they are yummy and you can eat them right off the vine, and potatoes, because you don’t know what you have until you dig them up," he says.
Click here to connect with Gary Oppenheimer.