When Too Much ...is Just Enough

By Heidi Rupke | August 04, 2017
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Have you ever been the recipient of a bumper tomato crop? Have you ever placed ten pounds of zucchini on a neighbor’s porch, rung the bell, and then left before the neighbor could refuse your gift? Have you ever wondered what to do with yet another round of CSA kohlrabi? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Collierville resident — Grower Outreach Coordinator for AmpleHarvest.org — Emily Fulmer wants to talk to you.

Sharing the Harvest

As a nationwide non-profit organization, AmpleHarvest.org has turned the “problem” of too much food into an opportunity. By providing a searchable online database of food pantries, this organization helps home and community gardeners find grateful recipients for their excess. The two parties are often within a few miles of each other and can form long-term relationships.

The concept for AmpleHarvest.org sprang from a common problem: abundant end-of-season crops. In 2009, founder Gary Oppenheimer worked in a community garden in West Milford, New Jersey. As the gardeners’ energy fizzled in late summer, their hard-earned produce was going to waste. Gary searched online for a local food pantry and found one 25 miles away. But by asking around, he found a women’s shelter within a couple of miles.

As Gary dropped off tomatoes and zucchini at the shelter, the employee he met was especially excited to share fresh vegetables with the shelter’s clients. From that experience, Gary decided to create a national “search engine” for food pantries, so that anyone with excess fresh food could find a place for their bounty. More than 7000 pantries are registered on the site and thousands of gardeners have donated food.

As the Grower Outreach Coordinator, Emily promotes the organization on social media, fields gardeners’ questions, updates the blog with stories and anecdotes related to gardening, and runs specific cause marketing campaigns with food companies.

Amid the clatter of an East Memphis coffeeshop, Emily lays out the basic premises of food waste in the United States in about six minutes flat. Studies by the USDA and the Natural Resources Defense Council show that billions of pounds of produce are wasted annually: left in fields, lost during processing, rotting in refrigerators. In a nation where millions of children and adults experience food insecurity, this excess could be a lifeline.

Backyard Enthusiasts Welcome

Emily is also a citizen gardener. Before joining AmpleHarvest.org in 2013, Emily was a stay-at-home mom with deep roots in Grow Memphis (now a part of Memphis Tilth). She grew tomatoes and “all the basics” in raised garden beds in her yard in Cooper Young before moving to Collierville. Backyard chickens both provided eggs and diminished her vegetable harvests.

“One time the chickens got out of their corral and ate all of the garlic plants. Their breath smelled like garlic for weeks,” Emily laughs.

Emily’s gardening aims are modest: to introduce her children to food’s origins and maybe get them to eat a few more vegetables. Last summer, her inaugural Collierville garden was 50 feet by 20 feet and included lettuce, Swiss chard, corn — “the squirrels enjoyed that,” she quips —  sunflowers, sweet and hot peppers, strawberries, watermelon, and asparagus crowns. Her most prolific crop, however, was weeds. Even so, she was able to donate some of her vegetables and eggs to food pantries she found through AmpleHarvest.org.

Emily extends the reach of the organization by contacting Master Gardeners, who can then spread the word to gardeners in their regions. Some gardeners choose to plant extra seeds with the specific aim of donating to food pantries. The North Forty Farmerettes, a group in Beaverton, Oregon, comprises a group of retired women with ample gardening experience. All of their organic flowers and vegetables are given to a local food pantry. Named for women who took over farms while men were overseas fighting WWI, the women from Beaverton donated nearly 2000 pounds of crops last year.

“That’s the most rewarding and exciting part of my job: those random phone calls or emails from people who are really excited about growing food and connecting with people in their area,” says Emily.

Killing Three Birds, Maybe Four, with One Stone

For many food pantry patrons, the route from farm to table can be long. From farms, crops are processed in factories. Then goods are shipped to food banks, which are large warehouses that serve a particular region’s food pantries. Trucks then deliver the packages to pantries. Depending on when the pantries are open, goods from the food banks may sit on a shelf for another week before reaching consumers. Because of this circuitous route, canned and dry goods (non-perishables) are the mainstay of most food pantries.

AmpleHarvest.org circumvents this time- and fuel-intensive distribution by connecting gardeners directly with pantries. The organization recommends that pantries post their open hours on the site so that gardeners can time their donations for the fastest possible turnaround from harvest to consumer. Donated in this way, vegetables at food pantries can be fresher than produce found in supermarkets.

In addition to vibrant flavors, fresh fruits and vegetables have further benefits for food pantry patrons: high nutrition and relatively low calorie counts. Most food pantry staples are heavily processed to maximize shelf life. However, the sugar, salt and fat that extend shelf life can have detrimental effects on personal health. Rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are disproportionately high among poor people. A diet filled with garden goodies can substantially improve health.

“AmpleHarvest.org was started to fight food waste. The byproduct is that people who need food are getting fresh, healthy food,” Emily says.

Pantries often welcome more than vegetables; flowers, eggs from backyard chickens, preserves, and even bread can be shared. Part of Emily’s job is educating gardeners about the Food Safety Act, which protects people from lawsuits over donated food. As long as the edibles are of quality that the growers or bakers would eat themselves, they cannot be sued.

A Packet of Seeds

AmpleHarvest.org offers small, locally-focused steps for addressing the seemingly insurmountable issues of food waste and hunger.

“Many people may not have financial resources to give [toward resolving world hunger]. But they can start a garden with a packet of seeds, and a single packet of seeds can yield more tomatoes than one family could ever eat. It’s a tiny investment with a huge impact on the local community,” says Emily.

These efforts are underscored when businesses add their resources to fight hunger and food waste. One company, Tasty Bite, offered customers a packet of seeds and a link to AmpleHarvest.org when people requested them on Tasty Bite’s web site. Customers would then grow the seeds and donate the produce to a local food pantry. More than 30,000 packets of seeds were distributed during this campaign.

Emily has also been creating partnerships with faith communities. Last year, AmpleHarvest.org hosted a “food waste weekend” where congregants of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths learned about this topic. This outreach began because about 70 percent of food pantries are found in houses of worship.

“My background is in theology, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the positive response. But every faith tradition mentions feeding the hungry, gleaning, sharing, or not wasting. It’s a natural connection,” says Emily.

While groups and businesses can spread the message of AmpleHarvest.org, the work ultimately resides with individual gardeners who choose to harvest and share their extra produce. If the estimated 42 million backyard, school, and community gardeners in the U.S. each donated a few extra zucchinis or eggplants, hunger and food waste would take a big hit almost immediately. That’s an ample harvest.

Next Steps

Learn more: Gary Oppenheimer’s Ted Talks: “AmpleHarvest.org: A Tech Solution to Food Waste and Hunger” and “Why Food Drives Contribute to Hunger in America”. Links to the videos are on the left side fo this page.

Try gardening, even in small doses:

Tennessee Extension Master Gardener Program: https://mastergardener.tennessee.edu/

Memphis Area Master Gardeners: memphisareamastergardeners.org

Donate your excess:  AmpleHarvest.org lists 17 food pantries within 25 miles of Memphis. Which one is closest to you?

AmpleHarvest.org Food Donation locations near Memphis

El Shaddai Mission Outreach - 992 Thomas Street

Mid-South Food Bank - 239 S. Dudley Street

Christ Quest Church - 590 Jennette Place

Nancy Fletcher Food Pantry - 43 N Cleveland Street

St. John’s United Methodist - 1207 Peabody Avenue

Fishes & Loaves - 494 South Parkway East

First Congregational Food Pantry - 1000 South Cooper Street

Leawood Mission Center - 1202 Dyer Street

Bread for Life - 3362 Jewel Road

Bread for Life - 196 Sycamore Lake Drive, Marion, AR

Hope House Ministries - 614 Highway 77

White Station Church of Christ - 1106 Colonial Road

Shiloh Food Ministry - 2099 Thomas Road Suite 9

St. Paul Baptist Church Food Pantry - 2124 East Holmes Road

HeartLand Hands - 385 West Stateline Road

Sacred Heart Southern Missions - 6144 Highway 161 North, Walls, MS

Generous House - 1790 North Germantown Parkway

Article from Edible Memphis at http://ediblememphis.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/when-too-much-just-enough
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