What do you do with an Ample Harvest? An Interview with Gary Oppenheimer


Americans waste more than more than 100 billion pounds of food every year, at every stage of production from field to store to plate. That number doesn’t include the produce thrown out or left to rot by the millions of home or community gardeners. Wouldn’t it be great if all those leftover tomatoes and cucumbers in your backyard could be linked with local food pantries and shelters?

Gary Oppenheimer had just that inspiration. He’s the founder of Ample Harvest, a project aiming to help home gardeners donate their unwanted produce to food pantries. Gary is a master gardener and the head of the West Milford Community Garden. I spoke with him about Ample Harvest and how home gardeners can make a difference.

Tell me about your inspiration for Ample Harvest.

I have a large property on which I grow a lot of produce. 2 years ago, I ended up growing far more than I could use. There are only so many cucumbers you can give your friends! I contacted a friend who runs a battered women’s shelter, and I ended up donating more than 40 pounds of produce. When I dropped it off, the woman at the door commented, “Now we can have some fresh produce.” I thought to myself, “Do these people just eat canned stuff?”  The next year, I had 20 pounds to donate. The same woman answered the door—and she made the same comment.

Then in the fall of 2008, I took over the running of the community garden run by Sustainable West Milford (NJ). I became aware that as the season went on, people became overwhelmed or bored with their gardens, and they just left their produce to rot.  I thought, with the economy in free fall, we should be arranging for this produce to reach people who needed it.

How easy was it to find places to donate the produce?

We formed an Ample Harvest committee to arrange for donations, but it was hard to do. These pantries don’t have website, so unless you know about them, you can’t find them. Google told me that the closest food pantry to me was more than 25 miles away! If I couldn’t find them, it meant that other potential donors couldn’t as well. I realized that my committee could have an impact on a national level if we found a way to connect gardeners who wanted to share with food pantries who needed produce.

Why don’t food pantries generally carry fresh produce?

The current structure of the food aid system is that food is typically delivered from government and private sources, who are like wholesalers, and given to food pantries, which are regional or local. They can’t do fresh produce because of the large distribution chain and because of issues of storage. The pantries don’t have the capacity to store fresh or frozen produce overnight.

Ample Harvest is built on a different concept. The food from backyard gardeners should go directly to the food pantry, bypassing the overall network. There’s no storage issue, because it can go from the garden to the client in one day. You just drive it over to the food pantry and it can be in the client’s kitchen that night.

How Ample Harvest does work?

A food pantry signs up, for free, on the Ample Harvest website with basic information about the pantry, like contact information. They can upload a photo of the pantry, and post information about when they would like deliveries, so that they are best able to get the produce to the client without storage. There is also space to put other information, both during and after the harvest season, so that they can let you know what their exact needs are. For example, if they desperately need diapers or cereal or peanut butter, they can post that information and you will know to buy it for them.

It’s like a dating service. The gardener, who is buried in tomatoes, keys in the zip code and how many miles they are willing to drive. A listing of food pantries will come up, along with a google map. You’ll get the information that the food pantry has entered, and you can enter your address and get driving instructions.

And no giving the pantry bruised or damaged food. The food you want to donate is the food you would want to serve your family! Otherwise, make soup or stew, or compost it. Don’t put it into the garbage, because then it becomes landfill, and it creates methane as it decomposes (which contributes to global warming).

How large is the problem of hunger and food waste in America?

12% of Americans are food insecure—they are hungry or in fear of being hungry. 1 in 8 americas are in fear of not feeding their families. 100 billions pounds of food lost every year That’s one pound person a day! We have a picture on our site of what the food lost by a family of 4 every month looks like! If we didn’t lose 100 billion pounds a year, if it were all usable, we’d feed 49 million people. We could eliminate hunger. Not all food can be recovered but we can do better.

What other values are behind your work?

We’re taking the notion of gleaning to the consumer level. There are tens of millions of gardeners who can donate food. In the later half of 20th century, we converted farms to developments. Ample Harvest is a step towards converting those developments back into feeding America. We’re salvaging part of that land.

This site also allows people who don’t have money to charitable. You can help neighbors by reaching into your garden, rather than your pockets. It’s a good example of tikkun olam.

Even people who don’t harvest can help, they can go on the site and see what pantries need. You can contribute by passing the word along to people with gardens or by signing up pantries. We really need help in getting pantries online. My biggest concern is that we’ll have a lot of gardeners with nowhere to donate.

There are some problems in society you can address without spending a lot of money. People are hungry—and food is in people’s backyards. The missing link was getting the food in backyards to the people who are hungry. There might be other problems that can be solved the same way. This will be a demonstration that you don’t have to pass the plate to solve a problem, you just need to ask for a helping hand.

What kind of help do you need most right now?

The key is to get as many food pantries registered before gardeners start harvesting later in the summer. If we can get the food pantries registered as early as possible, it increases the likelihood that you will be able to get on the site and find a place to donate.

To learn more about Ample Harvest, to register a food pantry, or to learn where you can donate near you, please visit www.ampleharvest.org.

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14 Responses to “What do you do with an Ample Harvest? An Interview with Gary Oppenheimer”

  1. Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster Says:

    And for a different approach to food waste (in this case, from supermarkets), there’s the Secret Freegan:

  2. Lisa Fine Says:

    You can also find more on food waste at the Wasted Food blog.

  3. Bobbi Says:

    I’m co-chair of the Green Team at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, CA. We’re putting in a demo garden onsite and working with the American Jewish University. This garden will be part of a larger network that we’re building with others in Los Angeles. The onsite garden will be a classroom for the VBS Day School and the congregation, and the produce will go to food pantries. VBS is an affiliate for SOVA, a food pantry in LA. The goal of the larger network is to connect gardeners and send the gleanings to food pantries. Yes, tikkun olam is catching on.

  4. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “We’re taking the notion of gleaning to the consumer level.”

    Are you? Is this really tzedaka or merely charity? Are you empowering the subject population or keeping them in a state of dependency on handouts?Part of the concept of gleaning was to leave the corner of the field unharvested – this metaphorically empowered the have nots so that they felt it was “their land” – unfortunately that concept has gone the way of the dodo. Getting B’nai tzedek kids to harvest in the name of “tikun olam” is a long way from what the original intent of the mitzva was.

    While we always gave surplus harvest (and fresh eggs) to our local VT food pantry (run by the local church), we also arranged for gleaning days where those who needed the food had a chance to help themselves both literally and figuratively. The Rambam said that the highest form of tzedaka is to make the recipient self-sufficient thus ending the cycle of poverty. Ask yourself honestly if these feel-good gleanings (complete with t-shirts and bottled water) solve or exacerbate the problem. Food for thought:)

  5. Gary Oppenheimer Says:


    I am the founder of the AmpleHarvest.org campaign.

    You raise some very good points, and I’d like to give you my thoughts.

    In a rural/farm area, having poor neighbors pick some of your crops is quite easily done. In a suburban area, having needy strangers come into your backyard to do this same is just not doable in many cases – insurance, privacy, property damage etc all make it a less than desirable approach.

    More to your point however is that in urban/suburban areas, most people can’t farm for a living… so teaching someone to grow crops wont help much.

    HOWEVER….. providing a child with healthy, fresh grown food can leave him/her more focused on doing well in school than listening to a grumbling stomach all day. It is this child that will, with better grades, have a job/career that will help break the cycle of poverty that may have overwhelmed his/her family in the past. This *does* meet the criterion of making the recipient self sufficient… just not quite the way the Rambam had anticipated.

    AmpleHarvest.org is not about feeling good (although nearly everyone does) … it is about doing good… helping hungry neighbors while also diminishing global warming (i.e. repairing the world).

    I do hope that you will help encourage as many food pantries as possible to visit and then subscribe to AmpleHarvest.org

  6. Erin Salva Says:

    We have all heard the saying: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for life”.

    Most people also realize what your project demonstrates…we have the capacity to feed all the hungry mouths in our communities. The cause of food insecurity in our communities is access to food resrources, not a lack of food.

    Over twenty-five years ago a small study group got together in our church to study world hunger. We read Francis Moore-Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet”
    Out of this study group grew the garden project.
    Since we live in a rural area we capitalized on our abundant natural resources… lot’s of arable land and knowledge about how to grow food. The garden project has been providing seeds and plants to families to grow their own food for over 20 yrs and for the past 3 years we have re-organized our community gardening program. This year saw two school gardens started to demonstrate sustainable and organic growing methods among elementary age students. The school gardens are both organized by local college students from Kenyon College and the Mount Vernon Nazaren University.

    Urban community gardens are on the rise and a great way of involving the community in the process of building/growing access to local, organic and fresh produce.

    I love the concept of sharing out of the abundance of our gardens. Community gardens/school gardens extend this sharing to the abundance of knowledge about how to grow your own…whether it’s in a container, a roof top garden or community plot where new gardeners can learn from more seasoned growers. HAPPY GROWING >!<

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