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Garden Connections

As a master gardener, Gary Oppenheimer knows how to grow a bumper crop of cucumbers. Problem was, his wife was so tired of eating cucumbers, she told him not to bring anymore into the house.

So Oppenheimer, a New York resident, donated his extra garden produce to a local women’s shelter. Everyone at the shelter kept thanking him for the fresh produce, a rare treat when most food donations are canned.

From this exchange, Oppenheimer came up with the idea to start a website to connect gardeners and farmers with extra produce to local pantries that provide healthy foods to families in need.

The website, AmpleHarvest.org, has since become a nationwide food-relief network that’s been recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama and the Points of Light Foundation, an organization in¬≠¬≠spired by President George H.W. Bush’s call to service.

This spring, Oppenheimer was the keynote speaker for the 2014 launch of Cultivate Iowa. Coordinated by the Iowa Food Systems Council, Cultivate Iowa encourages low-resource Iowans to plant gardens to grow their own food and gardeners to donate extra produce to food pantries.

Even though the United States is the richest country in the world, hunger remains a challenge in our nation, noted Oppenheimer, who is executive director of AmpleHarvest.org.  One out of six people in the U.S. is food insecure, which means they run the risk of not having enough food. In addition, one out of four children under the age of six are living in food insecure homes.

Oppenheimer said the “tipping point” that called him into action was an eye-opening newspaper article he read about the huge amount of food waste in the United States.

About 40 percent of the food produced in the United States isn’t consumed, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council. And more specifically, 52 percent of the produce grown in this country isn’t consumed.

With a greater understanding of the food waste problem, Oppenheimer said he started to see “chokepoints” in the food-relief network that were keeping fresh foods from reaching the people who needed it.

Oppenheimer explained that the challenge isn’t that we don’t have the food to share; it’s that the system isn’t set up to accept fresh food. “You’ve all been solicited for pantries at your house of worship or school. And what’s the one thing they always ask for? Boxes, jars, cans, no fresh food,” he said.

“The problem is that the majority of food pantries don’t have fresh food, which means one out of every four children in the United States doesn’t have fresh food. Kids are growing up in this country thinking apples come sliced in cellophane and peas come from cans and not pods. You have a whole generation of kids who don’t know what fresh food actually looks like.”

Meanwhile, more than 41.7 million Americans today are home gardeners, Oppenheimer noted. And gardeners often grow more produce than they can use, so the produce ends up in a landfill or compost pile. “It’s a wasted opportunity. Having a community where people are going hungry, and where people are putting food in a compost pile, seems wrong,” he said.

Using his background in web design and technology, Oppenheimer worked with a team of volunteers to create AmpleHarvest.org to connect gardeners to local food pantries. On the website, food pantries can register to be added to a database list, and then gardeners can search by zip code to find the nearest pantry accepting produce donations.

Pantries can also designate drop-off days on the website, so the food is delivered as quickly as possible to hungry families.

Dozens of Iowa food pantries have signed up on AmpleHarvest.org. Oppenheimer says he has seen first-hand how food pantry visitors will flock to a table of fresh produce when it is available. “It opens up the opportunity for people to reach into their backyard instead of their back pocket to help their neighbors in need,” he said.

Visit the Best Food Fact’s website (http://www.bestfoodfacts.org/food-for-thought/too_much_not_enough) to see an eye-opening infographic explaining the scope of U.S. food waste and hunger.