Core Pillar Lead at The Farmlink Project
By Aanika Patel
August 18, 2021
“I look back at our Thanksgiving efforts quite fondly. We had set a goal, to ‘provide a million meals during the week of Thanksgiving.’ I remember a couple days before Thanksgiving, I was listening to The Daily [New York Times] podcast where they interviewed a man who ran the Council of People's Organization (COPO) Food Bank in Brooklyn. He talked about receiving a truckload of food from us and how despite that, the organization was struggling so much to ensure it had enough food for the people that were lining up every day. This was a happy and sad moment for me. It was pretty inspiring because, in one sense, I was so proud we were able to provide that food. But in another sense, it was heartbreaking to listen to that podcast knowing that those very same people would be waiting in line next week, again hoping there will be enough food for them.
If Farmlink is to be successful, it's not just about getting enough food to food banks. It's about enabling people to improve the degree of access, choice, and dignity they have in how they receive their food for themselves and their families.
So I think that that moment was something I looked on fondly, because it was warm, but motivating. We were proud of what we accomplished, but it also showed how much more still needs to happen.”
When asked to recall a memorable story during his time at The Farmlink Project, Ben Collier paused as he tried to pick just one story to share. While his stories aren’t all fond memories, each one reminds Ben of the reason he decided to join the fight against food insecurity. Ben has been a part of The Farmlink Project since its inception in April of 2020 as a member of the founding team. A recent graduate of Brown University, Ben majored in Applied Mathematics and played Varsity Tennis until an injury in October of 2019. Having been unable to walk for six months and just getting situated on crutches at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Farmlink Project was “a saving grace” for him.
The Farmlink Project and its efforts to end hunger became Ben’s main focus as he navigated the onset of the pandemic. He and his twin brother Will came together with the other founding members to start this organization, at the time never imagining it could grow into the operation it is today. The early days of The Farmlink Project were “crazy and inspired,” and every day there was more to accomplish. For Ben, the realization that he is part of a team where the people believe as strongly in the mission as he does has provided a never-ending source of motivation.
From initially just Googling a list of hundreds of farms and cold-calling them one by one, Ben now leads the Core Operations Pillar at The Farmlink Project. He oversees the Farms Team, which sources the surplus and unmarketable produce, the Hunger and Outreach Team, which connects with communities to place the food, and the Deals and Transportation teams, which focus on the logistics of getting food from the farms to the community organization.
“In terms of Core operations, the biggest challenge at the beginning was getting farmers to believe that we [The Farmlink Project] were real. I mean, this was a time of really great need in so many areas across the country, and we were a group of college students calling farmers who were struggling with surplus, telling them, basically, ‘We're gonna get you money for your surplus, transport it, and then donate it to food banks.’ So, developing a reputation and proving that we were able to be this successful, reactive organization was something that was imperative in getting off the ground and starting to grow.”
After having committed over a year of volunteer service to The Farmlink Project over the course of his senior year at Brown, Ben has moved into a full-time position. “There are a lot of different directions where I get satisfaction from being a part of this organization. Externally, I think what's rewarding is seeing that we're at the point in our development now where other successful food rescue organizations are buying into the perspective that there is a lot more that can be done in connecting food access both on a regional and national level. They’re seeing that The Farmlink Project is an organization capable of that. To me, that's rewarding because we're able to see the work and the belief that we've had for the last year within ourselves reflected by other organizations around the country. Internally, it is incredibly rewarding to see how strong of a community this organization has become. I don't think that was something I anticipated when we started this, but it's something that I think is now inseparable from our success.”
Ben has been most appreciative of The Farmlink Project community and the work everyone has been able to do.
“I’d like to share how proud I am of the other Core team leads I've been able to work with. They are doing jobs that are currently done by people who have worked in this space for decades; they're building relationships, facilitating logistics, and solving really difficult problems every single day. And they do it so well—that's truly why our numbers, our margins, our reach, and our understanding of who we're trying to serve and how we can serve them better have been able to improve. It is a very, very special group of people, and there's really no group whom I owe more of my appreciation to than them.”
There isn’t just one person who has impacted his experience at The Farmlink Project. The opportunity to develop close relationships across so many areas of the organization is part of what has made Ben’s Farmlink experience so incredible.
But what The Farmlink Project achieves in the fight against food insecurity doesn’t stop at our organization. There is more work to be done alongside the “hyper-successful” regional food rescue organizations, who can distribute locally and understand the needs of their community better than anybody else. Despite their ability to serve their own communities, many of these organizations lack the infrastructure to exchange produce inter-regionally and collaborate with those similar to them to share produce and ensure even more consistent variety. Ben expressed how much more work remains to be done to empower and enable these local organizations to better serve their communities.
“I really do believe that we are still just beginning in terms of how much of an impact we can have as an organization. I think that there are two levels of learning that the country needs to go through. The first is that massive food waste and food and security issues exist in the food system and have existed for decades. And the second is that just getting food to food banks is not a sustainable solution. At the end of the day, 35+ million people in this country shouldn't have to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families.
And if we're actually going to succeed at what we're working towards, we're going to have to create a system that enables all of those people to be able to feed themselves and their families with more choice, reliability, and dignity.
I believe that the path to doing that is aggregating all of the people in the country, and then the world, who believe in that, too.”