Interview by: Katie Abrams
Aidan Reilly is the co-founder and Chief Creative Office of The Farmlink Project, a non-profit organization with the goal of moving unsold food from farms to communities across the United States. He is currently a senior at Brown University from Los Angeles. The Farmlink Project partners with organizations like Uber to help connect farmers with food banks. Since beginning operations in March 2020, Farmlink has moved more than 26 million pounds of food in 48 states, and recently started Farmlink Mexico. The Farmlink Project is run and operated by a group of more than 100 college students.
GEN-ZiNE: What inspired you to come up with the idea for Farmlink? Who came up with it, and why were they led to food insecurity?
Aidan: The idea for Farmlink came in the spring of 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic, as farmers were having to dump millions of lbs of fresh food while layoffs around the country were leading to mile-long lines at food banks. After a phone call with Stanford student and childhood friend James Kanoff recognizing the absurdity of these issues, we decided one could help solve the other. So, in mid-April we started cold-calling farmers in and around Los Angeles, asking and learning about their surplus issue. After (literally) hundreds of dead-ends, we found a farmer with 11,800 eggs that he was going to dispose of. Myself, James, and our longtime friend (USC Student Jack Cortese) rented Uhaul’s to help transport this food from the farm to a local food bank the three of us had grown up volunteering at, Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica. The next day, we arranged a shipment of 50,000 lbs of onions from a Farm in Idaho to a food bank in Los Alamitos, CA. These first two deliveries were a proof of concept. Although we knew nothing about agriculture, freight, and very little about the growing issue of food insecurity, we knew we had found a potential way to help farmers get their food away from the dumps and towards those who needed it most.
GEN-ZiNE: As students, how did you begin moving the project from idea to actualization?
Aidan: I would say the early success was due to three factors; starting small, moving quickly, and spreading the message. Although it sounds cheesy, the self-awareness to know what we didn’t know was very important in the beginning. I remember a text from mid-April between James and I saying “one farm, one truck, one foodbank. That’s all”. This way we were able to focus on details and make sure we didn’t end up with a truckload of potatoes stuck in Idaho.
However, once we had details figured out, we had to move quickly. Due to the nature of surplus food and food bank demand, one day could make the difference between people getting food and not. Early on, that meant being available and on-it almost 24/7. We worked with the attitude that one misstep or missed call would screw up our credibility. I would say that still characterizes how the team works today. Lastly, Farmlink wouldn’t exist if not for its volunteers and its support from thousands of individuals from around the country. Each of these things were made possible by an early emphasis on telling the story, using social media, and taking moonshot opportunities to get our story into the right hands.
GEN-ZiNE: How has Farmlink influenced the communities it serves?
Aidan: We don’t pretend to be the first organization to get food to those in need. Rather, we’re inspired by those that have done this for years before us and we focus on how to best help them, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. This considered, we work with food banks who don’t just serve their community, but are a part of it as well. One that comes to mind is Watt’s Empowerment Center in Los Angeles- if we can help alleviate the immense pressure of sourcing food, we know foodbanks like WEC will reinvest that saved time/money into finding newer and better ways to help the people in their neighborhoods. Our goal is to enable those who know their communities better than we do to grow, rather than pretend we can learn more in 9 months than they have in 20 years.
GEN-ZiNE: How many students are now involved in Farmlink?
Aidan: At any given time, you can find 120 students/ young people working together on this effort. As teams have fluctuated due to jobs/school resuming etc in the last 9 months, I’d estimate a total of 500+ young people have put their time into growing this project. Although the initial teams were largely Brown and Stanford, the number of Universities we represent has now grown to 75.
GEN-ZiNE: How is Farmlink different from other organizations involved in solving food insecurity?
Aidan: As I mentioned before, we are centered around respecting and helping organizations that came before us. However, there are a few unique traits that we are proud of. Firstly, we have nearly 0% overhead costs, meaning effectively every cent donated to us go towards paying the wages of farmworkers, truckers, and moving food. This is due to the fact that we are 100% volunteer based and do this work entirely virtually. We also have never - and will never- move processed or unhealthy foods. While the war on hunger in the United States is very real, the largest factor towards child malnutrition is kids not getting the right foods, rather than simply not getting enough food. Lastly, we only move food that will go to waste if not for us. We are designed to be a last resort for farmers. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse-gas emissions behind the United States and China. Our goal is to stretch each donated dollar to help the environment, keep farm workers employed, and increase access to healthy food.
GEN-ZiNE: The problem of food insecurity is prevalent around the world, how does Farmlink act sustainably as an organization, and how important is sustainability to the mission of Farmlink? And what do you see for the future of Farmlink?
Aidan: The fact of the matter is food insecurity and food waste are not unique to the pandemic, albeit exacerbated by it. Every year, millions of American children go to bed hungry each night while 100 billion lbs of food is sent to waste annually. The richest country in the world should not struggle to feed so much of its population. The issue is not lack of resources, but a lack of incentive to be efficient with those resources. Our focus now is on figuring out how we can change that incentive not just until the end of the pandemic, but 20, 30+ years from now.
GEN-ZiNE: Farmlink works with both farmers and food banks. What are some of the challenges and opportunities that have come from working with those groups?
Aidan: With farmers the challenge has been timing. Farmers are some of the hardest working and busiest people in this country, and the last thing we should do is add to their schedule. Along the same vein, we have to think about their needs and habits rather than expect them to use a new app, or new method of payment than they’re used to. At its most simplified, the issue of surplus is one of convenience and economic incentive- no farmer wants to dump his/her food, but many do not have time to coordinate a truckload to the nearest foodbank. We always need to shape how we work around their needs. In terms of distributing the food, we have faced a small variety of issues. On one end, the food-bank space can be monopolistic such that making a large donation to a food bank under the network of a certain organization may step on toes. Although this seems silly due to a common shared mission, it’s reality. We want to service those organizations that are outside of the network of large companies like Feeding America, who therefore don’t have the same access to food on any given day. In addition, we want to help rethink how families get their food from a local food bank; let’s face it, it is emotionally damaging for a mother to bring her children to wait in hour-long lines for handouts. We believe that the way produce is made available to underserved communities can be one that values the individual and their preferences. This isn’t an easy goal, but it’s the one we’ve chosen.