Our Heroes: Gary Oppenheimer of AmpleHarvest.org

photo from Marilyn Oppenheimer

Gary Oppenheimer knows how to get things done. In 2009, the Master Gardener had an idea to reduce food waste and help feed the hungry in his community by connecting those with extra produce to food pantries, and in just seven weeks, his AmpleHarvest.org, had come to fruition. Three years later, AmpleHarvest.org has registered nearly 5,000 food pantries nationwide, and Gary is working closely with the USDA and Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! campaign to bring fresh, locally grown food to families all over the country as well as speaking at events such as TEDxManhattan to share the organization’s mission. Along with vocal coach Deborah “Zuke” Smith, he has also recently started AmpleMusic.org, an initiative that brings together young musicians with a desire to engage their peers in the discussion about food insecurity.  Gary stopped by our office to speak with me about how AmpleHarvest.org makes it possible for not only backyard gardeners, but all those who eat, to make a difference in their communities.

Below is a snippet of our discussion. Listen to the 23-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above left) or downloading the podcast, or read a PDFtranscript.


Q: How is AmpleHarvest.org helping fresh produce to underserved communities?

  There are 40 million growers across America who grow food in home gardens, often more than they can preserve or share with friends and it often is left to rot in the garden or simply gets thrown away. AmpleHarvest.Org acts as, or functions actually, as a national resource that enables people to find a food pantry eager for that food in their own community. Most food pantries are not easily found, they are not in the phone book, they are not in the yellow pages, they are not on the Internet; they are basically in the basement of a church or some other organization and you just can’t find them. So AmpleHarvest.Org makes those food pantries in the community visible to the community.

Q: What are the environmental, social and economic benefits to this system?

On the environmental side, right off the bat, when people grow excess food they do one of two things with it. They either compost it, which is not necessarily bad environmentally, or they throw it away.

When you throw food away, number one, you are wasting food obviously, but number two, it’s increasing the waste stream, it’s going into a landfill, it will eventually break down into methane, which is a global warming gas 20 times worse than C02 and at the same time, because you are throwing this food away, other food had to be trucked into the community to feed the people so you have now raised the carbon footprint of the food pantries in the community. So that’s the environmental side.

The other point I should also bring out is as a general rule of thumb, when you have fresh produce coming into a food pantry, you are not throwing away cans and boxes and cellophane wrappers after the food’s been consumed. You may be throwing away a peel, but that’s about it. So there is less waste even after you have eaten the food.

Food waste, itself, is actually considered by the EPA to be an environmental hazard, because of the impact it has on the waste stream and AmpleHarvest.org is working with the EPA to reduce that waste stream.

  The prime social benefit is that it enables people in a community to help their neighbors in need in the community, and yet to do it invisibly. When you donate food to a pantry, you know it’s gone to a pantry, which means you know it’s going to somebody in your neighborhood, but you don’t know who. And if you are using a pantry to use your family, you know it came from somebody in your community, but you don’t know who.

And that is actually incredibly important because it’s entirely possible, especially in today’s economy, that the donor and the recipient may well be next door neighbors and the recipient shouldn’t be humiliated and the donor embarrassed by them meeting each other at a pantry. So this is a way for a community to help itself and to--the community helping itself is actually very American. It goes back to the very beginnings and that’s what it’s doing on a social level. It’s also introducing people who don’t have access to fresh food or pantries to fresh food, in many cases for the first time. Especially children who may not know what many types of produce are, they get exposed to it, which is important.

Q: What can people who aren’t gardeners or growers do to help support this cause and fight food insecurity at AmpleHarvest.org?

That’s a great question. Not everybody is a gardener in the country, and frankly, not even all gardeners grow a garden all the time. Wintertime, for example. We need people to find the food pantry in their own community. It might be in their own house of worship, it might be in a YMCA and to visit them with a flier from the home page at AmpleHarvest.org, they can print out, to urge and encourage the food pantry manager to register at AmpleHarvest.org. It’s important to tell the manager that, number one, it’s free. Number two, they don’t need internet, and number three, they don’t need refrigeration and storage and number four, it’s free. You need to say the free part twice, because that’s real important to them.

The more pantries that are registered the more food that’s going to get to people who really, really need it. The other thing that people can do is spread the word to their friends and families across all 50 states especially the friends who are gardeners. We actually have fliers on AmpleHarvest.org, if you go to the home page, there is one link on the right hand side that’s in red, and if you print out that flier, take it to garden shops and nurseries and it’s going to help the people who shop at those garden shops and nurseries to learn about their opportunity to donate excess food to food pantries.

AmpleHarvest.org itself is a viral effort across the country to get more people both to be educated about the opportunity to donate, to encourage them to donate. Everybody can have a part in some way in helping them to make that happen.