The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Ben Collier, co-founder of The Farmlink Project, a new nonprofit launched by students from Brown University and other colleges that gets food to food banks that would otherwise go to waste.
Question: What is The Farmlink Project, when was it founded, and what inspired it?
The Farmlink Project is an innovative nonprofit that rescues billions of pounds of fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste in order to feed people in need, reduce carbon emissions, and provide aid to farm workers and truck drivers. We source surplus food and food that would otherwise go to waste, and get it to communities where it makes the most impact.
We started The Farmlink Project in April of this year. We kept seeing articles about food banks facing the longest lines in decades as a result of the pandemic. Similarly, there were countless articles about farms struggling with massive surpluses due to the halted commercial food industry. We realized that, in a way, these two problems solve each other – one side has too much food, and the other doesn’t have enough.
We followed up with a couple of those farmers we read about – one who had just plowed under over 2 million pounds of onions, another who had nowhere to move hundreds of thousands of eggs. They effectively said, “If you get a truck here, you can have as much as you want.” So that’s what we did. We moved our first 10,800 eggs, and two days later 50,000 pounds of onions, to food banks around California.
Q: Who launched The Farmlink Project and what is the connection to Brown University and Rhode Island?
The Farmlink Project is a movement founded and built by college students, with many of the original and current members coming from Brown University. I am a rising senior (Class of ’21) at Brown, studying applied math. Other founding members from Brown include Aidan Reilly (Class of ’21), Will Collier (Class of ’20), Jordan Hartzell (Class of ’21), and Max Goldman (Class of ’21).
Our team now includes more than 200 college students from about 30 colleges – including Stanford University, Cornell University, and Georgetown University – and other walks of life.
In a certain way, the isolating nature of our environment made it easier for The Farmlink Project to become a national group. From day one, we communicated over Zoom and Slack. This dissolved any barrier to entry and allowed for all our volunteers to have engaged involvement across dozens of states.
Q: Can you quantify the impact that the project has had thus far, and tell us where in the country the food is being distributed? How much food has been distributed in Rhode Island?
To date, we have moved almost 12 million pounds of food, and contributed nearly $800,000 in financial support to keep farm workers and truck drivers employed around the country. That quantity equals over 9 million meals provided to people in need. Each dollar we are able to raise enables us to provide nutritious, farm-fresh meals to eight more people.
The project has helped deliver food across the country – from the Yakima Valley in Washington to Rumford, Rhode Island – and it’s beginning to attract national attention. In all, we have moved over 25,000 pounds of food to Rhode Island, and we are actively focusing on ways to engage with more of the small and mid-sized farms around New England to continue providing relief where we are able.
Q: How have food banks been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and how is The Farmlink Project addressing that problem?
Food banks are facing incredibly high demand to feed people in need right now. We regularly interact with food banks that are scrambling to feed two times, three times, five times the crowds they might usually face. For many programs, even their disaster relief budget does not stretch far enough to accommodate this demand. Still others have adequate funds, but are struggling to find enough food to provide for those who need them right now. We aim to address both of these issues in moving farm-fresh food directly to food banks.
Our process begins with the Farms Team, focused on connecting with farmers and sourcing our food. The Farms Team works side by side with our Food Insecurity Team, focused specifically on delivering food where it is needed most. They have built a network of organizations and food banks that can best help us distribute food to communities in need. Their main goal is to look out for the underrepresented locations where our food will have the most impact.
Q: What are the benefits for farmers to take part in the program?
Since day one, we have made a commitment to alleviate the financial burden on the farmers we work with. If a farmer is not able to donate their food, we aim to cover PPO (Pick and Pack Out) costs, which effectively are the costs associated with harvesting, preparing, and packaging the food. We also work to help them capitalize on the tax relief unlocked when they work with us. We always cover the cost of transportation. We want to ensure that our farmers get to their next harvest, and help keep their workers employed.
Q: Aside from the pandemic, how much food goes to waste each year, and what can be done to reduce that total?
Food waste is a huge issue, even in a non-pandemic year. Up to 40 percent of food produced for human consumption goes to waste, with billions of pounds of that food loss occurring at the farm and distribution level. We grow more than enough food to feed the people who go to bed hungry, and that doesn’t sit well with The Farmlink Project.
Q: What is next for The Farmlink Project? Will it continue after the pandemic has subsided?
The problems of hunger and food loss are not going away anytime soon, so neither are we. This experience has opened our eyes to the fact that food waste and food insecurity are a systemic issue that will not simply disappear when we no longer have to worry about COVID-19.
Our core operations will continue to provide relief to farmers and food to our hungry neighbors. At the same time, we are acutely focused on ways we can continue to address broader food insecurity issues. We’re taking everything we have learned from moving over 11 million pounds of fresh produce to communities in need to reimagine the charitable food system.