January/February 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Shannon Springmeyer
Photos by Steven Knudsen/Sonoma County Farm Bureau and courtesy of Gary Cedar
Online exchange helps farmers and community fight food waste together
Nick Papadopoulos and his helper Remi Murray, left, get their hands dirty while gleaning surplus crops at Bloomfield Organics farm in Petaluma. Petaluma Bounty Hunters, right, participate in a CropMobster gleaning.
A few boxes of uneaten kale were about to change the way Nick Papadopoulos looked at food forever, and mark his first step toward launching an online platform to help thousands fight food waste in their own communities.
Papadopoulos remembers standing in the cooler on a Sunday night, staring at 10 or so boxes of produce that hadn't sold at the farmers market. He was working as general manager of Bloomfield Organics, his wife's family's farm in Petaluma. With a background in consulting, he was a relative newcomer to agriculture.
"I was just floored when I saw on a farm how hard it was to make sure everything you grew benefits the people or your pocketbook," Papadopoulos said.
He was dismayed that his cooler full of produce, still perfectly fit for human consumption, was destined for the chickens because the farm had no way of quickly selling the perishable goods. He struggled watching even a single potato go to waste.
"What went into that potato? Time, passion, knowledge, money, water, energy, diesel fuel, that new tractor you bought, labor at a living wage," Papadopoulos said. "When I looked at that box of lettuce or that potato, I saw the behind-the-scenes streams of different resources that were going into making it, and that's really what's wasted."
When Papadopoulos had success using Facebook to find buyers for batches of the farm's surplus produce, he recognized the potential for a solution. In 2013, he and his wife, Jessica Flood, launched CropMobster Community Exchange, an online platform connecting farmers and others in the supply chain with community members to divert surplus food from a wasteful fate.
Experts say more than 80 percent of food waste in the U.S. occurs in homes and businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores.
The age of waste
As much as 40 percent of our food is wasted globally, according to a recent report by ReFED, a food-waste taskforce including business, government and nonprofit leaders. Waste happens when still-edible food is thrown away due to freshness concerns and when people overfill their plates and shopping carts. Food is wasted at every step along the supply chain. More than 80 percent of food waste in the U.S. occurs in homes and consumer-facing businesses such as restaurants and stores, according to the report.
"We're used to having easy, accessible food that's low-cost from the grocery store," Papadopoulos said. "And a lot of people actually think that's where food comes from, not the farm. In general, maybe we've become so distanced from our food supply … that we've lost respect for food."
And though farmers may be more intimately acquainted with the costs of food waste, it can still be hard to avoid. There are many factors contributing to the 16 percent of food waste that originates on the farm, according to ReFED. Low market prices coupled with high labor costs may make it too costly to harvest everything a farmer has grown. Some foods won't sell due to strict consumer and retail standards of cosmetic perfection. And sometimes farmers just grow more than they can sell, hedging against unpredictable weather, pests, disease and markets.
Jennifer Branham-Burns is co-owner of Laguna Farm in Sebastopol. She uses CropMobster to find customers for surplus produce.
Connecting the community
Many farmers have found ways of keeping some or all of this surplus food out of landfills, by selling imperfect produce for processing into items such as applesauce or juices, inviting charities to glean fields, donating food, feeding produce to farm animals, or composting. Papadopoulos designed CropMobster to easily connect farmers to these kinds of solutions in the community and to help them find new ones.
Farmers and businesses with extra food can sign up on the website to send alerts to CropMobster community members through social media and email. Food can be posted at full price or a discount, giving farmers an opportunity to recoup some of their production costs. Sometimes, food is offered for free as a donation.
Jennifer Branham-Burns has been using CropMobster since it first launched. She and her business partner, Ignacio Romero, run the 25-acre Laguna Farm in Sebastopol, providing more than 100 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables through farmers markets and their community-supported agriculture program.
"I don't think Ignacio has ever met a seed that he did not want to grow," Branham-Burns said with a laugh.
The farm is almost entirely supported by local customers, and in turn hosts a variety of community events and classes throughout the year.
A few years ago, the farm found itself drowning in unsold produce during the Fourth of July weekend. CSA members had called in droves to put their boxes on hold for holiday vacations, and dismal attendance at the farmers market further decimated sales. Branham-Burns began "kind of freaking out."
That's when she turned to CropMobster. She posted deals on the website to sell the produce at a 25 percent discount. She was stunned how well it worked—she sold every box. Branham-Burns continues to post to the exchange regularly, about twice a month. She promotes farm events, lists job vacancies and offers deals for surplus produce. The online platform helps her connect quickly with buyers when speed is critical.
"This stuff is so perishable, it's got to move quickly—within a day or two," she said.
Laguna Farm grows produce year-round and turns to CropMobster to find a home for unsold food.
More join the effort
Since its initial launch in Sonoma County, CropMobster has grown to encompass the entire extended San Francisco Bay Area and a broad range of food- and agriculture-related posts. In 2016, exchanges were launched in Sacramento County and the New York City region. CropMobster's latest addition is planned for launch in early 2017 through a partnership with the University of California, Merced.
Charles Nies, interim vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UC Merced, is collaborating with Papadopoulos to bring CropMobster to Merced County. With 87 percent of the UC Merced student population receiving financial aid, and two-thirds living off campus, the number of students skipping meals was "pretty high" according to a survey, he said.
Although UC Merced offers a monthly food pantry, Nies views CropMobster as an opportunity to provide students with greater access to free or low-cost fresh foods, either through deals from farmers in the agricultural region surrounding the campus or surplus meal opportunities left over from on-campus catered events. The exchange will be managed by UC Merced student interns who will receive training from Papadopoulos' team, with support from university staff, and will be open to residents throughout the county.
"It's almost like the re-creation of the old town centers that existed, where people all came together and they bartered and exchanged in ways that helped the community," Nies said. "Our hope is to develop a strong awareness within our student population so that, no matter where they end up living or what career path they go down, they have these habits, these behaviors and this awareness of the power of community to help address some of the social injustices that may exist in our world."
Papadopoulos said he is optimistic about the future of CropMobster and has plans to continue expanding to more communities. He stresses that while the platform is just one piece of the complex fight against food waste, it's important for people to understand that solutions are within reach, and that it will take many people working together to achieve them.
"I just think it's really about appreciating the food, the people who grow it, all the groups in our communities that do such hard work to keep our people fed and nourished," Papadopoulos said. "In all communities, there are things you can do to take action."
Coming to a screen near you
Food waste is a real problem, but it's one that can be addressed. A growing number of innovative solutions such as CropMobster harness the web, mobile and social media to involve people in reducing food waste along the whole supply chain. Here are a few available in California:
Waste No Food
This Bay Area nonprofit was founded by a high schooler. The app and website connect farms, stores, restaurants and others with charities that accept food donations.
Bay Area residents can order boxes of cosmetically challenged but perfectly tasty produce online at a discount of 30 to 50 percent.
Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign
This "funactivist" campaign reaches millions of users on Twitter, Facebook, We Heart It and Instagram with images celebrating the weird and lovably imperfect produce that is often rejected by stores and shoppers.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles, you can buy vouchers for as little as $4 to visit buffets just before they close and fill a box with whatever's left over, so it doesn't go in the trash.
Download this free app from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to know for sure how long that food in the fridge will last—so you can eat it, not toss it.
Copia dispatches paid drivers, or "food heroes," to transport donated food from Bay Area businesses to nonprofits and after-school programs.