Early in the pandemic, mid-April 2020, college students James Kanoff and Aidan Reilly found themselves driving a U-Haul down the 405 Freeway with close to 11,000 eggs in the back. “We were going about 20 miles an hour trying not to tip the eggs over,” Kanoff told Los Angeles.
Kanoff and Reilly are co-founders of The Farmlink Project, a non-profit that connects food banks in need to farms with surplus food. The L.A.-based organization has come a long way since those scrappy early days. Kanoff predicted that by the end of February, Farmlink would have reached the impressive milestone of 60 million pounds of fresh produce delivered across the U.S. since the company’s formation.
Kanoff and Reilly came up with the idea for Farmlink after being sent home from college in early 2020, as classes shifted from in-person to online. The childhood friends from West L.A. read a notice that their local Westside Food Bank—where they’d volunteered as kids—was in danger of shutting down. Hungry Angelenos, many recently jobless due to the pandemic, were lining up at the food bank in droves. Demand had doubled, supplies had halved, and the Westside Food Bank was asking for fiscal donations. Kanoff and Reilly, as college students, didn’t have much money to give.
But then they read a local article about farmers disposing of millions of gallons of milk every day. Across the U.S., farmers were discarding surplus dairy, vegetables, and other fresh produce as shuttered restaurants, schools, and hotels cancelled their contracts. Kanoff and Reilly recognized the paradox: Food banks running empty, while farmers threw away millions of tons of fresh, nutritious food. So, they started calling local farmers, offering to cover the cost of transporting the surplus food to food banks.
Their first donation was from an egg ranch east of the Valley. Kanoff and Reilly quickly realized, “10,800 eggs are never going to fit in our 2001 Suburban,” so they rented a U-Haul on La Cienega. They delivered the eggs, fresh and intact, to Westside Food Bank, where the highly-coveted food items were loaded into cold storage, then delivered to community partners that very day.
Next, Kanoff and Reilly turned their attention to onions. They’d seen a TikTok video posted by an onion farmer in Oregon, who said he was on the verge of going out of business due to restaurants cancelling their orders amid the pandemic. To save money, the farmer was in the process of burying 6 million pounds of fresh onions in a deep ditch on his farm, because he couldn’t afford to transport the food to the local landfill. Kanoff and Reilly called the farmer, and days later, were helping carry his onions into a Downtown warehouse for distribution to L.A. community members.
Word spread about Farmlink and, soon, college students across the country were volunteering to get involved, typically by hopping on Zoom calls with farmers to help secure donations. Today, the Farmlink team includes 150 students from 94 universities, hard-at-work moving about 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce weekly from farms to communities across North America.
Kanoff believes that, like him, Farmlink’s student army got fired up about the cause of food insecurity because they recognized the tremendous need amid the nationwide pandemic. “The guidance was pretty much all you can do is stay at home,” he says. “You’re watching the world crumbling around you, and [Farmlink] was a way to come together and fight back just a little bit.”
Adults sometimes dismiss Generation Z as self-absorbed and lazy, calling them fixated on selfies and Instagram followers. But in Farmlink, you see parallels to World War II, when young people of the Greatest Generation collected scrap metal, cans, rubber, and other items that could be used for building weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and ships. “In times of crisis, people come together, and this was a crisis,” Kanoff reflects. He adds that young people were less at risk of contracting COVID-19 and, therefore, better positioned to collect and distribute food donations. “This was our opportunity to step up and help our local communities,” declares Kanoff. “And a lot of people answered that call.”
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