It’s almost unthinkable but more than fifty percent of the fresh produce grown in the U.S. goes uneaten. “A huge amount of produce never leaves the farm in this country,” said Nick Papadopoulos, General Manager of Sonoma County’s Bloomfield Farm. At certain times of year, there is more supply than demand. All this explains why the latest USDA census shows that over fifty percent of farms in California don’t break even.
Papadopoulos has seen this first hand since 2012 when joining his father-in-law’s family farm in Sonoma County. Over an eight month period, Papadopoulos noticed 25 to 30 boxes of premium produce coming back unsold at end of each week.
We were feeding it to the chickens, adding it to compost pile, he said. “(That’s) a lot of edible food going to waste,” he said.
Frustrated that the fresh produce wasn’t getting to people who wanted or needed it, in March of this year Papadopoulos had a brainstorm. He posted an unusual notice on his Facebook page: the first person to agree to come to the farm and distribute the food to their neighbors would get 70 percent off the entire amount! Within about 45 minutes, he got a response and soon a mom came out, filled up her van and distributed the produce to her neighborhood in Santa Rosa. This helped him recoup some of his costs.
He realized this was a real opportunity when he successfully repeated this the next week. So he and a good friend with a web design and social networking business partnered to create the prototype for what is now CropMobster.com.
There needed to be a better way for farms to sell unsold produce and not have it go to waste and a way to get it to hunger organizations who could use it, said Papadopoulos.
Since that first post in March, other farms, grocers, food banks and soup kitchens have signed up for this unique service. Individuals passionate about food, looking for a deal, are signing up, as are small food businesses making added value products out of local food.
“Around 80 percent of fresh water is used for agriculture,” said Papadopoulos. “That’s a lot of natural resource, fertilizer and environmental impact for something that doesn’t get eaten.”
Over four months of operation, CropMobster has transformed over 20 tons of food waste into nutritious food for those in need and generated new business, visibility and customers for small farms and food sellers. It’s also won the prestigious GLOBIE (Growth-Focused, Locally Owned or Operated Businesses, run by Innovative Entrepreneurs) Prize at the 2013 Sierra Nevada Innovation Challenge.
CropMobster takes its name from the old tradition of crop mobs – individuals without land who want to learn farming who sign up with farmers in exchange for meals.
This venture has a triple bottom line opportunity, said Papadopoulos.
First is hunger relief. In this country one in six people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“This provides ways to bring local food to people who are priced out,” Papadopoulos said. “People who can’t afford premium food.”
Second is food access.
“We’ve got to support our food producers,” he said. “We need to create more incentives for farmers to get involved.”
The third part of this equation is food waste.
CropMobster’s website features stories of farmers and food related organizations getting their unused food quickly into the hands of those who needed it. Bi-Rite Market networked and had $250 worth of local, sweet cherries picked up by Project Open Hand, a San Francisco-based organization providing meals to seniors and the critically ill.
Farmers who overplant or whose crop comes in early can network to find buyers to take their bounty. Currently serving eight counties, Papadopoulos has had queries from across the country about his venture. He’s working on developing the business model. He will then see how it can become a scalable, “maybe a national tool and model that’s localized in each community,” he said.
“We’re the first group in food waste to use crowdsourcing and social media,” he said.
For those interested in learning more or in signing up for email alerts, go to CropMobsster.com.