Farmlink Project fights rising food insecurity amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted and decimated a range of businesses but it has also highlighted the growing issue of food insecurity and food waste. The two issues are on opposite ends of the same spectrum but traditionally not connected — until three college students stepped in.

"The Farmlink community is 150 students and young people who are volunteering their time in the food waste and food insecurity space," Farmlink Project founding partner Ben Collier said.

Collier is a student at Brown University. Like most of the country, he watched in disbelief as this pandemic devastated this nation's farmers and food banks. If only he could find a way to connect the two. So, with the help of other like-minded college students, he did.

"What we thought was a COVID relief mission has turned into a much larger mission," Collier said. "While food insecurity and waste was highlighted by the pandemic, it is certainly not a product of it."

Before the pandemic, food insecurity affected 1 in 4 U.S. households, which amounts to roughly 35 million Americans, according to the USDA. That number has likely doubled over the last year, according to an estimate. Meantime, 40% of the food produced in this country is never consumed.

"I wasn't that familiar with the space and not familiar with the extent to which this was pervasive around the country and around our homes," Collier said.

With no connection to these industries, the Farmlink team started cold-calling, relentlessly. To date, the organization has moved 28 million pounds of food in 47 states and partnered with hundreds of farmers, food banks, and nonprofits.

"Food access is not a production problem, it's a distribution problem, it's a logistics problem," said Luis Yepiz, a senior manager at Food Forward, a food-recovery program active in seven states. Last year, the group moved 60 million pounds of food.

When Farmlink reached out about forming an alliance, Food Forward saw an opportunity to service clients in states that it couldn't reach before and access a variety of foods not readily available on the West Coast.

To date, Farmlink has moved more than 1.2 million pounds of produce through Food Forward.

"In areas in Arizona and the Midwest, where food banks rely on what they are able to buy or canned goods, Farmlink did a lot of good," Yepiz said.

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It also improved the lives of farmers and the margins of farms that produce a harvest to fit the needs of its clients instead of only growing what the land allows.

One such farm is LaJoie Growers in Maine.

"Farm work is very hard work. You're depending on Mother Nature to produce a product," fifth-generation farmer Jay LaJoie said. "The last thing you want to do is to throw away food."

Back in 1901, his great-great-grandfather began cultivating land in northern Maine as a homestead farm. Over the years, the business has boomed. One of LaJoie's biggest clients is a food company that services major U.S. airlines.

"When the pandemic occurred, this was product that had already been harvested, was put away in storage," LaJoie said. "Then the decline in the markets caused a surplus in our product and it had no home."

Millions of crops were in storage and millions more ready to harvest. 

The restaurant industry was in shatters. The travel industry was, too, and the food needed to be consumed. LaJoie was at a loss until the folks at Farmlink reached out.

To date, Farmlink has handled close to a million pounds of purple potatoes.

LaJoie said it feels good to know that the food is going to Americans in need.

Seemingly overnight, a college start-up became a national food recovery organization, reaching farms and families longing for something as basic as a nutritious meal. Their efforts earned them a Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Citizen Service Award in recognition of their relentless pursuit of improving the lives of countless Americans in the midst of one of the greatest periods of economic hardship this country has ever seen — all before they leave college.

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