"What we realized we could provide was this missing link."
Food goes to waste every day in America, no matter how hard families try to only buy what they need. In fact, 80 billion pounds of food is thrown away every year in the United States, and roughly 30% of it is food grown that never makes it to store shelves.
The Farmlink Project is trying to change that.
"What we realized we could provide was this missing link," explains Ben Collier, the co-founder and CEO of Farmlink.
As juniors at Brown University in April of 2020, Collier and classmate Aidan Reilly began making cold calls to farmers asking what food they might have that was going to waste. The first "yes" came with information that changed their focus.
"When we finally got a farmer on the phone who said 'I've got all these eggs, you can have 'em, the thing is I just don't have a way of getting them to you' 'I don't have time and I'm not gonna pay for a truck to send it'," said Reilly, who is head of partnerships with Farmlink.
So, other student volunteers picked up the eggs with a rented U-Haul. But, that's also when feeding the hungry became a logistics operation.
The idea is for Farmlink to move up the food supply chain before it is prepackaged and sitting on a shelf. Instead of keeping thousands of pounds of food from going to waste, Farmlink has kept millions of pounds of food out of the landfill by helping farmers who are often stuck with cancelled orders.
"For us we thought, OK, it seems like there's no one that's connecting these huge, huge opportunities to recover bulk, surplus, healthy quality food and get those communities fighting hunger. That's where we started and it's really where we've remained to this day," Collier said.
The pandemic exposed how fragile the supply chain is. Food is often transported to several locations before it lands on a store shelf. A logistical error could leave that food on a warehouse floor to spoil, with the farmer usually paying to remove it.
Farmlink steps in to transport that food, for free, to non-profits who need it.
"We talked with a tomato grower who paid $15,000 to throw away a truckload of food. When we're then able to say 'Hey, you reach out to us wherever that food is, whatever volume, we're gonna connect it with local hunger-fighting charities' -- it's a really strong counter," Collier added.
"We can't grow a solution like this by asking for favors. You have to fit in to the existing system, you have to save people time and money, and we figured that out pretty quickly and have been committed to that ever since," Reilly said.
Pastor Eric Tietze runs Heart of Compassion, a food bank and social service organization in Montebello. It's one of dozens of non-profits in the L.A. area benefiting from Farmlink.
"It's a privilege for us to partner with those guys and I just love the heart... they're a demonstration of good news, young people that are doing things that are right," said Tietze.
In just over three years, Farmlink has rescued over 100 million pounds of food, distributed it to over 400 communities and grown to over 600 volunteers nationwide -- proof of concept to the founders that this idea works.
When asked about the future for Farmlink, Reilly spoke for the young people who, at 25, have already created a nationwide non-profit in under three years.
"You can reach something like a billion pounds of food a year? You start to actually close the meal gap in the United States and then the idea of 'solving hunger,' or the idea of really making a difference in national hunger, becomes a reality."