He calls himself "an aging geek," partly affirmed by his grey pony tail. He's also a programmer, a master gardener, and a "connector of disconnected dots," a combination that led Gary Oppenheimer to found AmpleHarvest.org, whose goal is nothing short of "solving a problem that some people thought could never be solved": hunger and food insecurity.
Statistics pour from Oppenheimer like grain from a silo. One in four children in the U.S., and 50 million people nationwide, live in a food-insecure home. Forty-two million gardeners grow a surplus of 126 billion pounds of food each year. That puts 287 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere if the food is thrown away and not composted; if redistributed, it can feed 28 million people. "These are extrapolations of data and might be on the low side," he says.
AmpleHarvest.org is a search-based online platform that shows locations throughout the U.S. where home and community gardeners can donate food, so people can find it. It fixes what Oppenheimer calls a "fundamental flaw in the American food safety net": the inability of many pantries to accept fresh food, due to lack of refrigeration and the logistics of redistribution.
"More importantly, it is sustainable and permanent," Oppenheimer says.
The platform's origin is serendipitous. Oppenheimer was living on a boat on the Hudson River ("people thought I was going to have a Viking funeral someday") when, in 1998, he bought a home in rural West Milford, N.J. In 2008, the town asked him to take over as executive director of its community garden. "There were people in McDonalds flipping burgers who knew more about different trees and plants than I did," he says. When a woman at a meeting complained about the abundance of food rotting in the community garden, "I said with no forethought, 'if we're going to have an ample harvest, the least we can do is get it to people who really need it,'" Oppenheimer recalls.
In March 2009, he had an epiphany. "I thought I could solve this entire systemic problem, not in West Milford, but in the United States." He made a PowerPoint presentation that mapped out what became AmpleHarvest.org. The site was launched in May 2009 on the FatCow hosting service. Maureen Shryock wrote the site's PHP front end, and Josh Kopf wrote the MySQL search engine.
"From inception to national rollout in seven weeks, not bad," Oppenheimer says.
He used Google Alerts and AdWords to drum up interest. By August, 500 pantries had registered; by October, it was 1,000. At last count, almost 8,500 are registered on the site.
AmpleHarvest.org connects formerly disconnected gardeners to pantries for the needy. Users type a zip code into the site to find nearby locations where they can donate or pick up food. Oppenheimer says a donor could provide food to a neighbor and the two needn't cross paths because AmpleHarvest.org can list hours for donations and hours for pick up.
By shortening the supply path, AmpleHarvest.org solves two problems common to local food drives: the logistical overhead of collecting, transporting, and delivering food, and the limitation of accepting jars, cans, and boxed goods.
Pantries can be "terrified of having fresh foods come in because they need refrigeration and storage they can't afford," he says. AmpleHarvest.org removes that concern by enabling a quick turnaround, sometimes on the order of just hours. As a result, "The food is fresher than anybody could buy in a supermarket. The gardener knows where and when to donate food, and they are done with AmpleHarvest.org. The intent was to solve the disconnect and to then go away," Oppenheimer says.
Oppenheimer's work has made him a CNN Hero, a guest of the Obama White House, and a winner of the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award, among many other accolades. He has given not one, but two TEDx Talks. His tech background came to the fore when he was nominated in 2014 for the World Food Prize by ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient Vinton G. Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, a former president of ACM, and a colleague of Oppenheimer's at MCI in the 1980s.
"He's helping people help each other to live healthier lives [by] creating a caring community that feeds people," Cerf says. "Many people in low-income situations don't have access to grocery stores that carry fresh produce, and that's one of the key things that AmpleHarvest.org does well." Cerf was vice president of engineering for MCI Mail in the mid-'80s, when Oppenheimer served as an outside sales representative for that organization.
When they were both at MCI, Oppenheimer "noticed that this was a communications company that wasn't communicating well with its customers, so he connected the dots," Cerf said in his introduction to Oppenheimer's Google Talk in June 2014.
In 1985, Oppenheimer created an electronic newsletter—apparently the first—that offered tips and tricks each month on MCI Mail products and services. "It was called PEN, a clever acronym for Periodic Electronic Newsletter," he says. Examples are online. "According to Wikipedia, I invented the electronic newsletter, but somebody else invented spam."
"Gary was always actively involved in MCI's programs and frequently suggested new features and customer support enhancements [for MCI Mail]," says Carla LaFever, Cerf's chief of staff at Google and another MCI community alumnus.
LaFever is "practicing what Gary preaches," Cerf said in his Google Talk introduction. "This morning, she came in with a giant sack of vegetables that she grew in her own garden."
Oppenheimer tackled another connect-the-disconnected project in his first job for Chase Manhattan Bank, programming PDP-11 minicomputers on RSTS. "Like your first girlfriend, RSTS is still my first love. RSTS was so powerful that you could create operating system-level functions within the application, which was just amazing."
Chase employees were using paper to move information. Interoffice mail was "so slow and so bad," Oppenheimer says. He worked on a PDP-11 with a Teletype machine, as did dozens of others. He wondered, why not use the terminals to send messages? "I sat down on my own time and I wrote what you would call an email program. I could type up a message and send it to a terminal—Teletype number 5. It was really cool. The communication between the workstations was broken up into these chunks that they called buffers—today you'd call them packets—in such a way that if the machine crashed, which they often did, when you brought the machines back up it could reconstruct the packets or buffers and keep on sending. It had the same fault tolerance as SMTP has today." He showed the system to Chase executives. "We're talking (19)76. I said, 'What do you think?' And they said, 'What makes you think we're putting a computer at everybody's desk?' and they killed the project."
Like AmpleHarvest.org, other outfits use tech ingredients to address hunger in America. These include Feeding America, which features a zip code-based pantry search, and FoodPantries.org, which has state-based search. Olio, a food-sharing app launched in July 2015 by Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One, has been used to share food in over 32 countries so far, according to the company website; navigation is in English, but users can message in their local language.
About a dozen countries have expressed interest in AmpleHarvest.org. "We share the model and lessons to say 'here's how you do it,' but every country is different," Oppenheimer says. "AmpleHarvest.org was explicitly and exactly designed for the American infrastructure. Any other country would need to build their own."
Some have. The Leket Israel app and website is available in multiple languages and includes a component that enables gleaning from farms. Gleaning, described in the biblical books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Ruth, is the gathering of food that's uncollected at harvest. Leket Israel's Agricultural Gleaning Department has rescued thousands of tons of produce from farms in Israel.
Oppenheimer says he's "using technology to solve what has historically been a hands-on problem."
AmpleHarvest.org is now hosted on Liquid Web.
Hunger in America "is not an issue of we don't have enough food," he says. "It's that we're not using the food we already have on a staggering scale."
Oppenheimer would like to get AmpleHarvest.org running at full speed. A donation of $8 million from a benefactor would make that possible and lead to "a $20-to-$22-billion reduction in the nation's healthcare costs year over year," Oppenheimer says. "The impact on the country, and by extension the world, would be staggering."
David Roman is Web Editor for CACM.