img: Owen Dubeck
In 2020, an estimated 54 million people in the United States are expected to experience food insecurity—around 18 million of those people will be children. Couple that statistic with the USDA’s year-over-year estimation of 30-40% of the food produced in the US ending up as wasted product at some point in the food supply chain, and it’s hard to deny that there is a gap between those who produce food and those who struggle to secure access to enough food.
Enter The FarmLink Project.
As Los Angeles college students, James Kanoff and Aiden Reilly watched and read the news coming from their home state of California. Neither student had a background in food procurement, agriculture or logistics, but both knew that something had to be done.
“We started in mid-April, when the quarantines first started,” says James Kanoff, co-founder of the FarmLink Project. “One big problem that we saw at our local foodbank was the surge in demand they were seeing. Donations were down, and we were like, ‘How can we help,’” he says.
Admittedly, the pair didn’t know exactly what was needed from either foodbanks or farmers at the beginning of their planning.
“We started to cold-call farmers,” James says of his and Aidan’s outreach to the farms they learned about in the news, “We wanted to learn what problems they were facing and how we could help.”
James says that, even today, the last thing the team wants to do is try to come up with solutions for issues they don’t understand or know the nature of. The FarmLink Project also knows the importance of building relationships with the farmers they work with and hope to work with.
“The one thing you can’t fast-track is building trust with farmers,” he says, “It’s a process that we take really seriously; we want to be able to follow-through on the promises we make, and the continued relationships we are building with farmers is something that we are proud of and continue to work toward every single day.”
Today, a group called The Farms Team spends every day reaching out to the farmers The FarmLink Project works with, to learn about what their challenges are and what their team can do to help.
Once the team located and negotiated a pick-up of food to be donated, figuring out the delivery logistics proved to be more difficult.
A rented truck, loading and unloading thousands of pounds of food and navigating the 405 freeway, made the relocation of a farmer’s excess crop difficult. The team knew that they needed a logistics solution.
“We were really between a rock and a hard place. Aiden was on the 405, going about 25, getting honked at…what we were doing wasn’t working,” says James.
Thankfully, within a few calls, the project secured a partner in transportation giant, Uber Freight. The relationship continues, eight months later, and presently, the company is moving about 98% of the freight for the FarmLink Project.
Today, the team has grown far beyond the co-founders, their friends and their friends-of-friends, to more than 150 full and part-time volunteers and over 1000 people across the country giving one or two hours of their time to the mission each week.
The average age of the team is 21, and Aidan shares, “The one thing that has united us (the team) is the mission that we are on. You have this gap between food rotting in the field and people who need food. Our mission is bridging that gap.”
A Lasting Solution
To-date, the FarmLink Project has provided around 1 million dollars in compensation to the farmers they work with. The payments have filled payrolls to keep farmworkers employed and provided the funds needed to plant another crop.
“The issues that we’re are trying to fight aren’t just for people who aren’t getting enough food,” Aiden says, “We talk to farmers who share how broken supply chains are destroying their monthly incomes. It’s (COVID-19 food supply chain breakdowns) a financial disaster. Our goal with this project is also to cover the pick-and-pack costs to make sure farmers can continue to farm—100% of the donations that we haven been given has gone to farmers and the (non-Uber Freight) truck drivers who help us move food.”
Both Aidan and James share their admiration for the organizations who have bridged the food insecurity gaps for decades, noting that those groups were getting food to communities before the pandemic and continue to do a phenomenal job throughout COVID-19. Both also recognize that there is room for all who wish to lessen the effects of food insecurity, and offer that The FarmLink Project is here to stay.
“This is something that is becoming more and more our focus,” James shares of The FarmLink Project’s long term vision to end food security. “If we really want to fight food security in the US, food banks aren’t the only venue to do that. There are 39% percent of food-insecure Americans who don’t go to food banks because of the stigma—we have to be thinking about other ways to reach those people. So we have invested a lot in doing ways to reach venues: pop-up farmer’s markets, school distribution, and even direct-to-door distribution. We are working to reach family’s where they are with dignity and respect.”
Learn more about the FarmLink Project here: farmlinkproject.org