Gary Oppenheimer: Founder of – Ep. 90

What to do with that extra food?

About Gary Oppenheimer &

Gary Oppenheimer is a man who walks the walk and talks the talk. Gary is the founder of, an organization that links millions of amateur gardeners to local pantries.

Have you ever had a few too many tomatoes in your garden? Know someone with an extra basket of zucchini? makes it incredibly easy to make sure that your excess food doesn’t go to waste.

Food waste is one of THE defining problems of our era, and Gary Oppenheimer has made it his life’s work to solve it. His efforts have landed him on CNN, in the White House with two sitting presidents, on TEDx, and more. I support everything about this man’s journey

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2:45 – “We were privileged to work with the Obama White House, and now working with the Biden White House on Michelle Obama, in the Obama years, ran a program called Let’s Move, which encouraged people to both eat more healthy food and to exercise and move. And it was a natural alignment with what does of helping fresh food get to food pantries. And I was thrilled that she included in a talk she gave, and she also included an outtake in her book, American Grown.”

4:12 – “I hate waste. I grew up as a child being told, ‘Finish what’s on your plate. Kids are starving in Europe.’ And so built into my DNA is you don’t waste food, time, energy, money…I became aware 13/14 years ago of the immense amount of waste of food in this country. My own garden was vastly overproducing, and there came a point in which my wife said, ‘You’re not bringing any more of that stuff in the house.’ And I didn’t want it to go to waste so I went out to find a place to which I could donate it. There was a battered women’s shelter in my town and I did take it there. And I learned a little bit about what they don’t get typically, which is fresh food.”

4:53 – “I also was asked to take over a community garden at the time in my town and the people there…were complaining to me that they hated the idea that food was being wasted in the garden towards the end of the season. People were bored, overwhelmed, going on vacation. And I just uttered… ‘if we’re going to have an actual harvest, the least we can do is get to people who really need it.’ And that was the birth of a program that we built in that community garden to get food from the garden to local food pantries.” 

6:12 – “We’ve all been told you’re not allowed to donate the food. We’ve all heard the mantra of jars, cans, boxes, no fresh food at food drives. So we’ve all, as gardeners, been told ‘you can’t do that.’ So we either forced it on our neighbors who don’t really want it, take it to the office or let it rot. Meanwhile, there are families in your neighborhood, families in communities that really, really could use that food.” 

8:12 – “I realized that the two problems to be solved were: first, we thought we couldn’t donate the food, so one thing is to tell people you can. The second thing is how to find a food pantry. It required a search engine. So I map this whole thing out and I said, ‘This makes a lot of sense.’ I found two amazing volunteer programmers, one of whom herself was a food pantry client, and said, ‘This is my vision, this is what we should be doing.’ And they helped build the website as it existed back then, and we launched it on May 18th of 2009.” 

10:26 – “Anybody could have come up with the idea and, speaking to what your show is all about,  maybe other people came up with the idea, but I acted on it. Having a good idea isn’t enough if you just let it become dust off into the ether of the universe. But if you do something with it, and I did – I had the energy, I had the time, I had the technology background – and I ran with it.” 

11:45 – “The waste of food is the number three contributor to climate change. So not only was this about reducing hunger and reducing malnutrition, but in the long run it has an impact on reducing climate change in America.” 

13:44 – “Google came on board early…I think within eight weeks of’s launch. I got a $10,000 a month, month-over-month, grant from Google for advertising, which has since quadrupled to $40,000 a month ongoing. So Google is a huge hero in this country for reducing hunger, malnutrition, and the waste of food, because we got to use that platform to tell people – gardeners, for example – about what we’re doing.” 

14:23 – “I was named Huffington Post Game Changer 2011, I think Yahoo! named me the greatest person of the day…I was nominated for the World Food Prize. All these wonderful accolades. But the real heroes are the gardeners…I’m the face. I get the accolades, but it should really be the 62 million people in this country who garden in their backyard or in a community garden or in a flower pot. They’re the real heroes.” 

15:14 – “Today we are in 4,200 communities in all 50 states working with 8,000-and-growing food pantries. We are right now working on building a special adaptation to make it a really great fit…for Native American reservations across the country, because there are some adaptations we need to make to make work in that environment.” 

15:43 – “When the pandemic started, a gentleman named Mike Sutterer reached out to us, the CEO of Bonnie Plants…And they said, ‘We love what you’re doing. We want to work with you. We want to help’. And they made a really, really generous contribution to They got involved all the way. And that is a major thing that moved forward and, much more recently, a brand new partnership with the Home Depot.” 

16:36 – “The basic premise of the whole thing is built on a theory of change that I have, which is that to solve a problem, you find people who really care about it – in this case, the gardeners – you give them information, you give them technology to solve it, and get out of their way.” 

19:39 – “The major loss of food in this country happens because of people like you and me, and everybody else. The problem is that we go to a restaurant and the portion size is too big, or at home we have too much. We buy too much…I think the easiest place to look at food loss and the easiest place to fix the waste of food is with us.” 

20:37 – “70% of America’s food pantries are in a house of worship…I said, ‘What if we went to faith leaders across the country? Pastors, rabbis, imams, priests, and gave them basic information about food waste. The USDA stuff, basic stuff. And then what if we gave them a sermon written in their own faith tradition? And then gave them nine calls to action that they could talk about with their congregation…they could talk about what their own scriptures, their own traditions, their own values, say about not wasting food. The discussion of the waste of food actually occurs in all faiths but it’s overlooked.”

26:28 – “ is viral. And the reason is that once I tell Ross that he can donate food from his garden to a food pantry down the street, you’ve heard of…Now your neighbor over the picket fence is talking about too many zucchini in their garden. And you’re in the position to say ‘St Mary’s food pantry takes the food Wednesday afternoons.’ They’ve never heard of, they never need to, because you’ve become the vector for the information…Ultimately, every gardener in America will know that they can donate food.” 

32:28 – [On growing in places with water restrictions] “There are ways of growing things in a garden that use a great deal less water. First of all, mulching is great, just putting stuff around the plants that reduces the evaporation from the soil. Ideally, growing the things that like to grow where you are

is the best all the way around. If you’re trying to force something to grow in a place where it’s not very happy growing it’ll be a struggle. Many people are using drip irrigation where these little pipes run through the garden and just drips water very slowly.” 

33:02 – “Here’s a simple way not to waste water when you’re growing tomatoes. Don’t water the tomato plant, water the ground. First of all, when you water the plant, which is just the easy thing for people to do, most of it evaporates, but you also increase the risk of a fungus. Focus on the ground, the water gets back in. Also, do it at the right time of the day. The evenings is a great time or late afternoon is a great time. You do it in the morning, most of the heat during the day is going to cause it all to go away.” 

34:18 – “Eating food that is grown locally, whether it’s a local farmer or you, is great for the environment because the environmental cost of moving food around is ridiculous…using the food you have in the community is, I think, a really smart way to have fresh food, wholesome food with a lower environmental impact.” 

37:52 – “There is a program called the Master Gardener Program. It’s run by the USDA. And there are 100,000 Master Gardeners in America, I’m one of them…we are trained by the state university…to become local experts on things like gardening, trees, lawns, etc.. And we do this for ourselves, but as part of our training, we are obligated to put in volunteer time to help our community. So I would say that if you want to learn how to garden, if you need help with gardening, start with contacting your extension office. And every county has one and you can either call them up, you can visit, you can ask and find out what resources, what materials they have to help you learn how to garden.” 

41:19 – “We did surveys in the past of gardeners across America, and then an economist from Cisco Systems did an analysis of the data. And other than finding out the staggering amount of food wasted in gardens, 11+ billion lbs, one number really stood out to me: all the garden produce in America, the surplus produce, if all of it were donated, the nation’s health care costs would drop $58 billion a year…So the garden food donation improves the health and frankly, by extension, the wealth of the nation.” 

48:47 – “I was planning [during retirement]…to go biking across America…But I also, again, my DNA about waste. And I guess in some ways it is summed up by what a former board member said about me. She said, I was the perfect nexus of geek and social responsibility. I didn’t want to see things that could be fixed go unfixed. And this was something that I could fix. I don’t have any regrets about it. It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve met the most amazing people from two presidents: President Clinton and President Obama, and Michelle Obama.” 

54:56 – “What is it that you want to do that you’ve thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do it because I’m only me.’? I really think the whole world is full of people who are ‘only me’…You need a passion to act on it. And I’ve said this when I’ve spoken to students: even if you fail half the time, you’ve still moved the needle forward. And that’s a really, really important thing – that you don’t have to be completely successful to still be a success.”

56:15 – “I’m a long-distance biker and the bike club I belong to in New Jersey have a wonderful saying: ‘only half the hills are up.’ And I think when you look at a problem, and you’re looking at a solution, yeah, they’re going to be all sorts of obstacles and challenges and difficulties and stuff, but there’s an awful lot of successes that come out of it, too. And so just go into it, don’t look at the top of the hill, just keep on climbing every ten feet. That’s how you get to the top of the hill.”

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