This spring, a group of college students took advantage of their quarantined time away from their campuses to do something extraordinary. When Brown University student Aidan Reilly and his high school pal and Stanford student, James Kanoff, realized that farmers couldn’t get rid of all their crops due to COVID-caused disruptions in the food distribution system and food banks were suffering severe shortages, they decided to remedy this situation. After Aidan learned that his college pal Will Collier also had the same idea, the three of them teamed up and started the FarmLink Project in April.
As its name suggests, FarmLink connects farms with food banks by purchasing farmers’ crops that would otherwise go to waste and delivers the assortments to needy food banks throughout America. Starting with a team of 6-10 friends and family members, FarmLink now involves about 200 college student volunteers. As of early July, the organization has moved more than 5 million pounds of food, from produce (like potatoes, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, mixed greens and sweet potatoes) to kitchen staples including eggs, salt and milk. Roughly this equates to 4.2 million meals delivered in 30 states – and counting – across America.
As part of their grassroots program, FarmLink worked with Idaho farmer Doug Hess this spring. Hess, a potato farmer, was stuck with a mountain of surplus spuds that his regular clients no longer needed due to the coronavirus quarantine. As a result of his partnership with FarmLink, thousands of pounds of Hess’ potatoes were moved to food banks. Hess told ABC newsman David Muir, “I’d like to thank FarmLink for helping me move 125,000 pounds of potatoes, that otherwise would have gone to waste, to people here in America.”
The Navajo Nation, which suffers from a critical food insecurity problem, has also received Hess’ potatoes. Nathan Lynch, a site coordinator at Navajo Nation Christian Response Team, praised the organization, telling The Washington Post, “FarmLink has filled a big void for us.” While hunger in the United States is not a new problem, the COVID-19 crisis has intensified the struggle for many Americans. According to a recent Feeding America study, one in two children and one in three adults will face food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to combating food poverty, the FarmLink also provides an economic boost to its food suppliers. FarmLink connected with the nonprofit food rescue organization Food Finders, which quickly became FarmLink’s fiscal sponsor. This partnership allows FarmLink to accept tax-deductible donations. Through social media campaigns and word of mouth, they have raised more than $750,000 in just a few months, a majority of which came from small, individual donations. FarmLink has used 100 percent of the donations to pay farmers for their produce as well as the truck drivers and farm workers involved in food deliveries. FarmLink has also teamed up with Uber Freight as part of the ride-hailing company’s Move What Matters campaign to better coordinate and transport the farm food.
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a $3 billion program aimed at helping transport surplus produce to food banks, farms frequently don’t have the necessary resources to deliver to food pantries. FarmLink, however, provides the invaluable service of navigating this often-difficult process. In fact, USDA distributors, including Borden Dairy, have started reaching out to FarmLink directly for assistance in finding food banks in need of surplus products.
In addition to supporting farmers and food banks, FarmLink’s service also provides positive environmental effects. Typically, food waste creates significant amounts of greenhouse gases as food rots. Through their work, FarmLink has helped cut down on this pollution. During the week of June 21-June 28 alone, the organization estimates that over 800 quadrillion cubic pounds of carbon dioxide emissions had been avoided globally.
FarmLink’s brain trust plans on continuing the project post-pandemic, although they know their business model will need to adapt after restaurants and distributors return to normal. As one of the founders, Max Goldman, told Real Simple: “We want to maintain these connections between farms and local communities to redistribute food waste and connect large quantities of produce to food deserts however we can.”