One hundred and fifty phone calls. It took that many “not interested” and “so sorry” responses before making the first match. It was April of 2020. At home for remote learning, as the pandemic grew in strength, James Kanoff sat in the living room of his parents’ house in Los Angeles while his school, Stanford University, worked to empty its classrooms and shift into online learning.
James was with his buddies, friends from childhood, discussing their newfound learning environment and the impact of the pandemic on everyone’s lives when the realization hit just how increasingly problematic daily life had become. The struggles weren’t just impacting individuals, as entire businesses and services had to shutter their doors to the public. Tens of millions found themselves out of work and struggling to make ends meet.1
Westside Food Bank, a local organization that James, his family, and his local elementary school supported each year, found itself in dire need of resources, suddenly overwhelmed with more people seeking assistance than ever before.
“In addition to a health crisis, there was an economic one, where people were forced to flood a charitable food system that was never really designed for a crisis. Often these food banks had long lines with half the families being turned away because the site couldn’t get enough food,” Kanoff says.
Around the same time, a New York Times story broke, sharing how farmers were throwing away millions of pounds of food intended for schools, restaurants, and hotels, which were now all closed down due to the impact of COVID-19.
“In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.”Excerpt from New York Times article, Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, by David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery, April 11, 2020.
James had a simple thought. Let’s make a connection between a local farmer and our food bank. We make a deal, rent a truck, take the excess produce off the farmer’s hands, and deliver it to the food bank.
“We didn’t come up with this idea that we’re going to do this on a big scale or anything. It was really just ‘How can we help our local food bank?’” James recalls.
Forging this connection was more complicated than he could have imagined. For example, a food bank might need particular produce items, while a farmer has a surplus of different ones. James also discovered after many phone calls that most of the farmers with contact information on the web were not the farmers that provide produce for schools, restaurants, and hotels. For the most part, demand for produce from these online farmers increased during the pandemic, as they received calls from people stuck at home who could no longer get access to food in traditional ways.
After more than ten hours and about a hundred and fifty phone calls, James and his friends finally reached a local farmer with a surplus of eggs, an item of need at their local food bank.
The following day, the group rented a truck and traveled an hour outside of Los Angeles to arrive at the farm. While the team envisioned pulling up to an expanse of flowing verdant pastures, cows chewing the cud while chickens roamed the fields, what they encountered was more of a warehouse in the middle of a small town. Undeterred, they loaded the truck with the eggs and drove enthusiastically back to Los Angeles to drop their haul off at the food bank.
Left: Co-founder, Aidan Reilly, offloading eggs. Right: Palettes get loaded onto the truck.
It could have ended there, a deed well done. Mission accomplished. But something about the New York Times story had struck a chord with James.
“As we were coordinating our first drop off, we reached out to an onion farmer that we found out about in the Times article. He had had to dig a ditch for six million pounds of perfectly good onions. So, we called him up and said, ‘Hey, we have food banks looking for onions, we can cover the cost of transportation, is this something you are interested in?’ He was in Oregon, and he said, ‘Hey yeah, I’m paying to dig these ditches, so let me know where to go, and I will send a truck to drop it off.’ So, the morning after we had delivered our eggs to the first food bank, we were unloading fifty thousand pounds of onions at a different food bank.”
The team had cut their second deal in as many days.
With the potent cocktail of university life, social media tools, and mobile devices in hand, word quickly spread about this courageous group of students and their audacious idea. The local news picked up the story of these entrepreneurial young adults tackling the global issue of food insecurity during a pandemic.
“So we did a few deliveries like that, with friends, and friends of friends. Word got out via social media, the news got word of what we were doing and started covering it, and then we had students from across the country reaching out and saying, ‘I have the same problem in my local community, what can I do to help?’ And then donors from all around the US were saying, ‘hey, here’s some money we can donate to help somebody,’ and from there we were off to the races.”
The Farmlink Project was born.
In subsequent weeks, with the help of college students on the other side of the country, the team helped connect farmers and food banks in Virginia, sending 6,000 pounds of produce to Feed More, a food bank in Richmond. Soon after, the first deliveries arrived at the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, which had recently earned the unfortunate distinction of surpassing New York for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country.2
Within a month, the team had moved more than a million pounds of fresh produce.
James says half kiddingly, “It went from having an objectively bad idea, to doing a bad idea, to doing a slightly better idea at a reasonable scale.”
The remainder of the spring trimester was a challenging time for the team. Term papers and finals competed with new food requests and community connections. Demand was growing as word continued to spread.
“We probably raised a million dollars from less than $100 donations from thousands of people across the country. People were trusting us to do all this, so we’ve gotta be all in,” Kanoff remembers.
Like a giant ocean swell, the momentum carried the group into the summer months, when traditional college students might start their internships or consider programs to study abroad. Others would look forward to vacations with family. The Farmlink crew, by contrast, chose instead to put their efforts into this project full-time. In a blink, this tremendous growth transformed a side project into a full-fledged mission to solve a national problem.
“Like being duct-taped to a rocket ship” is how James describes it.
As demand for assistance expanded across the country, a proportional increase arrived in the number of students providing voluntary support. While the pandemic raged over the summer and many Americans remained isolated at home, teams of Farmlink volunteers worked long hours to make the critical connections between their local farmers and food banks. Coordination between teams happened through Slack and Zoom, with most volunteers never meeting in person.
When we think about a smooth-running operation, our minds conjure images analogous to a symphony orchestra. Kanoff says Farmlink was more like a jazz band with a lot of improvisation and decisions made on instinct. At one point, the California team had a delivery of forty thousand pounds of potatoes, packed onto palettes, loaded on the truck. It wasn’t until they reached their destination that the team realized the palettes were placed in such a manner as to make it impossible to remove them. With the help of a second truck, they worked to maneuver the palettes into a viable position only to see one of them explode, leaving two thousand potatoes sprawled across the pavement. James retells how it felt at the time.
“This happened right after some positive news coverage, with everyone expecting us to do this thing, to believe in us, so we were like ‘Oh man, we are really in over our heads. People are expecting us to do great things, people believe in us, and we can’t even get potatoes off a truck.’”
But the students never gave up. Instead, they dusted off their pants, kept moving forward, and continued to get better. One perspective never lost on the group was confusing leadership for expertise. They capitalized on the talents that each member brought to the table. Whether in the area of marketing, web design, community outreach, or programming, everyone contributed what they could to make the organization run as efficiently as possible.
They also sharpened their vision.
“We try to target surplus that has already been harvested so that if we didn’t come along, the food would otherwise be wasted, which would cost the farmers money. So we can now say, “we will reimburse you for the cost of transportation, or will transport ourselves, in order for you to get this food to a food bank instead of going to waste. We are making the option of donating surplus food the most economical choice.”
The success of Farmlink led Kanoff to take a gap year in his schooling. He dedicated the following year to put all the necessary organizational pieces in place to make Farmlink official and establish it as a federally recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
As of now, The Farmlink Project has moved over fifty-eight million pounds of food, delivering forty-eight million meals. Meanwhile, it has prevented over forty million pounds of CO2 that would have otherwise been emitted had the food waste gone into landfills.3 The organization has also expanded its work into Mexico.
When asked about the origins of the courage, the audacity, the fearlessness it took to tackle this daunting issue of food insecurity, James responded wryly,
“I think the word you are looking for is naïveté. A lot of people read these same articles or saw the news in the media about food going to waste. We, as college students, were the people naïve enough to think we could actually do something about it. We didn’t have the know-how, but we had a decent amount of elbow grease and a lot of heart.”
James and his friends could have given up after any one of those initial one hundred and fifty phone calls. They could have called it quits after the first big delivery. They could have thrown in the towel when the palette full of potatoes exploded. But instead, these intrepid students persisted, expanded, learned from mistakes, and celebrated success by continuing to improve on their work.
What does the future hold for The Farmlink Project?
Through immense fundraising efforts and newly-formed partnerships, there are now ten full-time employees at the organization. And James doesn’t see his own participation waning any time soon.
He will graduate from Stanford with a degree in Symbolic Systems, a study of the relationship between humans and computers, and how to endow computers with human-like behavior to help solve problems.
To provide a real-world example of Symbolic Systems, we know that carbon-rich soil is a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.4 However, using existing methods, measuring the amount of carbon in the soil is costly. With the help of satellites and ground-based equipment, future artificial intelligence software can collect this data at a much faster rate and at a lower cost. This process will help farmers and agriculturalists to determine how much they can increase the amount of carbon in their soil and be paid for doing so, thereby offsetting the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
It is plain to see that James’ work and his impact on the world are just beginning. Unfortunately, food waste and food insecurity are not simply byproducts of our recent battle with COVID-19. The pandemic just exacerbated these longstanding issues and delivered them to a broader public audience. There is still so much work to be done. We are grateful to James and his team and their ongoing efforts to make this world a better place for all of us.
To support the mission of the organization and to honor the work of James and his colleagues, LumenSparQ has made a $1000 donation to The Farmlink Project.
We encourage you to donate to this important work too. You can do so at the link below.
If you’d like to help future Lumenaries and SparQs, you can donate to LumenSparQ here:
Author: John Umekubo • Editor: Isabel Umekubo • Photo credits: The Farmlink Project
- Tracking the COVID-19 Economy’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships: https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-economys-effects-on-food-housing-and
- Navajo Nation surpasses New York state for the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the US: https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/18/us/navajo-nation-infection-rate-trnd/index.html
- Farmlink Project Impact: https://www.farmlinkproject.org/impact
- Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?: https://e360.yale.edu/features/soil_as_carbon_storehouse_new_weapon_in_climate_fight