Four weeks ago, a group of college students came together in an effort to do something about the supply-chain disconnect that has led to farmers throwing away fresh produce at a time when food banks are seeing huge spikes in demand.
As of this week, the effort that began with cold calls to farmers has facilitated the transport of 300,000 pounds of food to food banks in the Southwest and Northeast. The FarmLink Project has paid nearly $5,000 in wages for farm workers and truck drivers to handle the donated food.
But FarmLink’s first truck delivery of 10,800 eggs to Santa Monica’s Westside Food Bank was driven by Aidan Reilly, a junior at Brown University who founded FarmLink with his longtime friend James Kanoff (a sophomore at Stanford University) and Will Collier, a senior at Brown.
All three were moved by the recent spate of reports about farmers dumping milk and plowing under fresh vegetables because demand from restaurants, stadiums and other food distributors has plummeted amid the coronavirus lockdown. They all had some time on their hands because of the closure of colleges and universities. So they threw themselves into the project despite their lack of expertise in running a nonprofit, food handling or distribution.
“Seeing these reports about the egregious waste of food — we felt it was insane,” Reilly said.
Reilly and Kanoff, who both returned home from Rhode Island to the Los Angeles area after their schools closed in March, came up with the idea to try to generate some kind of fundraising to serve as the bridge between the farmers with food and organizations serving those in need. Reilly had volunteered with Westside Food Bank in the past and had some connections there.
In a phone conversation with Collier, who was back in Connecticut, Reilly mentioned the burgeoning effort. Collier responded immediately that he and others in his family had been disturbed by reports of massive food waste and started helping Reilly and Kanoff work the phones.
Reilly, 21 and Collier, 22, are friends and have been water polo teammates at Brown. The two have a lot in common. Both have twin brothers, and both have fathers who are prominent television executives and friends themselves: HBO Max chief creative officer Kevin Reilly and Fox Corp. entertainment chairman Charlie Collier.
As the concept for FarmLink began to take shape, Aidan Reilly, Will Collier and their respective twin brothers, Emmett and Ben, and Kanoff enlisted friends from Brown and other schools to help them build out the necessary infrastructure. The concept is simple: FarmLink raises money from donors in order to pay farm workers to pack surplus food in danger of being wasted and drivers to deliver loads to food distribution sites. FarmLink volunteers are building databases of farms that are willing to donate surplus product and the food banks near them.
Building FarmLink from scratch has been an education in areas they never expected to gain expertise. Reilly is an international politics major. Collier is studying economics and architecture.
With Kanoff and others, the research process started as they schooled themselves on the arcana of California’s food transportation laws and the intricacies of teaming with an established nonprofit organization in order to make FarmLink donations tax deductible. The group wound up partnering with the similarly focused Food Finders nonprofit based in Los Alamitos, Calif., and it has pacted with Uber Freight to handle some of the transportation.
So far, FarmLink has raised about $150,000. The initial donations came from family and friends, but word about the effort has spread through media coverage and social media posts. Collier said he has been pleasantly surprised to see hundreds of emails now coming through the Farmlink Project website.
“The most amazing thing has been the amount of support and outreach and donations that we’ve gotten so far,” Collier said. “We’ve heard from students and people all over the country who want to get involved, want to offer us trucks if we have a shipment in their area. It’s been an incredible journey so far.”
About 50 students are working on the project at present. The group is organized into teams focused on fundraising, reaching out to farms and reaching out to food banks. The goal is to inspire others to build similar farm-to-food bank networking systems. The students aim to nurture FarmLink over the coming months and leave it in good shape to be a sustainable non-profit effort.
Putting some sweat equity into the process was important to the FarmLink founding trio. Reilly rented the truck and had a quick tutorial on how to drive the vehicle before he and Kanoff brought the eggs from a distribution center outside Los Angeles to the Santa Monica food bank. Earlier this week, Reilly was at Food Finders in Los Alamitos unloading hundreds of pounds of potatoes for delivery.
“It’s hard work but if we were sitting in our houses in sweatpants while somebody else was digging through these potatoes, it wouldn’t feel right,” Reilly said. “It’s important that we get involved directly.”
The experience of reaching out to farms in rural areas has been eye-opening for a group of young people, most of whom grew up with privilege in urban centers.
“To immerse yourself in a project like this and get down to the details on what goes on to get food from farms to our table every day,” Collier said. “It’s been a learning experience.”
The FarmLink team has tried to be careful not to get too ambitious even as the volume of activity grows at a fast clip.
“We wanted to be smart about starting small and allow it to scale naturally,” Reilly said. “We’re learning by getting it done and (monitoring) our shipments from end to end.”
Part of the educational process has also been realizing the depth of the systemic problems with food waste at a time of rising food insecurity throughout the country.
“We see this organization as not necessarily a single organization but as a movement to bring awareness to this issue,” Collier said. “It’s not unique to this pandemic. Food waste has been an issue for years but due to the severity of it right now it’s been in the forefront of the news.”
The students are also realistic about how long they will devote themselves to FarmLink. A new school year and new job prospects will be on the horizon soon.
“We want to leave this as a online platform that allows farmers to post excess food they have and connect them with the people who need it,” Reilly said. “It’s definitely a priority for us to leave behind something that continues to be productive.”
For its founders, FarmLink reflects an achievement in the basics of establishing an organization and workflow to achieve an important goal. It also represents what they didn’t do during their unexpected spring exile from the rarified air of college campuses.
“One of the most rewarding parts about what we’ve been doing is that we’re taking time that otherwise would have been spent wastefully watching TV or playing video games to fully immerse ourselves in using our time for good,” Collier said.