West Milford man dedicated to erasing world hunger

WEST MILFORD. One website helps connect the world to fresh, locally grown produce.

| 13 Jul 2022 | 10:33

A program that started because of a small, overabundant home garden in West Milford, along with a concern about food waste expressed by Sustainable Community Garden members, is providing daily food for hundreds of thousands of hungry people across America. The website AmpleHarvest.org, a hunger/food waste nonprofit created by Gary Oppenheimer, is also gaining interest around the world.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonnie Plants LLC joined forces with AmpleHarvest.org to create an initiative called Grow More Feed More to inspire gardeners to share their surplus harvests to help feed neighbors in need. Headquartered in Opelika, Alabama, Bonnie Plants is the largest national supplier and producer of vegetable and herb plants for home gardeners in the U.S.

The company has partnered with The Home Depot and AmpleHarvest.org to empower gardeners to grow for good this season and to #DonateYourHarvest to local food pantries. Bonnie Plants is donating $1 to AmpleHarvest.org for every in-store transaction at The Home Depot, up to $250,000.

Oppenheimer and his wife Marilyn bought their home in the Tall Timbers community in 1998 and they fell in love with the great outdoors and country life. It was natural that Oppenheimer would plant a garden. In a few years growing plants in their rich black-dirt garden was bringing them more produce than their family and friends could possibly use. Not wanting to see the food wasted and thinking of the many people who were hungry, Oppenheimer investigated donating the extra food to those in need of it. His first donation of 40 pounds of produce to a local women’s shelter was graciously and thankfully received.

Having spent most of his career working as a computer programmer, Oppenheimer was a problem solver, with one of his successes being the creation of the first electronic newsletter in 1986 for MCI. He has redirected his problem-solving skills toward the issue of hunger in America – and more recently the world. He visualized an incredibly simple solution to hunger and waste based on the idea that the problem isn’t the food itself, but rather misinformation and missing information. His AmpleHarvest.org program is an information and technology-based solution to a nationwide problem that most people have been unaware of. That is, the waste of over 11 billion pounds of surplus harvest from America’s home and community gardens. He saw a need to end the waste of locally grown fresh food to decrease hunger and malnutrition on a permanent basis and attacked the problem.

“Until the advent of AmpleHarvest.org, there was no nationwide capacity to supply locally grown fresh produce into the food pantry network because the food bank network’s ‘hub and spoke’ design prevented the acceptance of this food,” Oppenheimer explained. “The legacy system buys/collects packaged food, moves it to a centralized location [a regional Feeding America food bank], and then delivers it to pantries. The refrigeration, [requirement of] special trucks, and timely delivery to supply fresh produce has been impossible under this model.”

He explained that the AmpleHarvest.org model solves the problem by enabling gardeners to connect with local pantries to which they can deliver their own surplus harvest year after year. By flattening the process, the freely available food travels the least distance in the shortest possible time, to a food pantry within the community.

Harvesting and transporting the food to the pantry is done by the gardener. The ultimate distribution of the food to hungry families remains with the food pantry. Oppenheimer explained the simple solution addresses hunger, food waste, malnutrition (including diet-related diseases), climate change and the waste stream and community engagement.

“We’re calling on all gardeners to join us in growing for good this season to experience how rewarding it feels to use your garden for something amazing, like feeding your community,” said Mike Sutter, president and CEO of Bonnie Plants in a press release. “By growing your garden with Bonnie Plants, you’ll be sure to have a plentiful harvest to share with your local food pantry. Just one tomato plant can generate 15 or more pounds of tomatoes worth nearly $30.

“Growing a bountiful vegetable and herb garden at home has never been easier thanks to the innovations in Bonnie’s Harvest Select line,” said Dan Stuppiello, division merchandise manager at The Home Depot.

The ideas generated by Oppenheimer for AmpleHarvest.org have brought much recognition over the years. He was nominated for the World Food Prize by Vinton Cerf, known as the “Father of the Internet,” and the nomination was seconded by the founder of “Points of Light,” a USDA official, a food bank director, one foreign food bank network, a former assistant surgeon general of the U.S., and others. In Washington, D.C., he met then-President Obama and First Lady Michele Obama who highlighted AmpleHarvest.org in a speech in early 2012. He worked with Michele’s “Let’s Move” initiative to encourage healthier eating for millions of people. Oppenheimer won a Russell Berrie Foundation award for “Making a Difference.” Named a CNN Hero in 2010, he was introduced on the Larry King TV show, followed by a live interview with CNN anchor Ali Velshi. He has worked with many organizations. His overseas activities have also included being a speaker at a global philanthropy conference in Athens, Greece.

AmpleHarvest.org is rolling out a special version of its program specifically designed for Native American reservations and communities, including special technology to address issues these communities face. The company also has a global program called Faith Fights Food Waste that works to educate and enable clergy of all faiths globally to give faith-specific sermons on their own faiths’ teaching on the waste of food.

Oppenheimer is known locally as an exceptional individual who is successfully confronting the nation’s hunger, nutrition and food waste challenges with creativity, generosity and passion. He believes that to do the impossible one must first believe that it isn’t.

The check out the host of resources Oppenheimer has helped create, visit ampleharvest.org.