Elk Grove launches new social media effort to feed the hungry

04/07/2014 12:00 AM

04/07/2014 6:15 AM

Popular websites already help consumers connect with private owners to rent vacation homes, parking spaces and vehicles. Elk Grove is using a new social media venture for a more charitable purpose: connecting residents in need with excess food that would otherwise go to waste.

The city has teamed up with Sonoma County-based CropMobster to form the Elk Grove Community Exchange, where food providers can reach out to charities, gleaners and hungry families who have signed up to receive alerts. The website is elkgrove.cropmobster.com

The instantaneous nature of the alerts is particularly important when providers have a large supply of perishables, as was the case Wednesday when local food broker Josh Jordan had more than a ton of cucumbers without a home.

“My job is to find a viable home for the product, but there are times when, logistically, there are so many mountains to climb that it becomes too expensive to make that happen,” said Jordan of food brokerage River City Produce. “But you shouldn’t just throw that away.”

In Elk Grove, hunger and food insecurity continue to tug at residents. Elk Grove Food Bank, which is sponsoring the new website, serves some 3,300 people monthly, a growing number of whom are seniors on fixed incomes. Food bank officials say it served nearly 35,000 people during fiscal year 2012-2013.

Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis formally introduced the city’s partnership with Sonoma-based CropMobster at his March 28 State of the City address.

“Like two ships passing in the night, food goes to waste and people go hungry,” Davis said in his address. “Not in Elk Grove. Not anymore.”

Nick Papadopoulos launched CropMobster last March from his family’s Sonoma County farm out of frustration, he said, after seeing the food they grew there going to waste.

“I was frustrated that food was going to the chickens instead of people,” Papadopoulos said.

“It’s one of the ideas that I call ‘innovative common sense,’ ” Davis said on Wednesday. “Whether it’s a restaurant or a backyard farmer, everybody has a level of food excess while others struggle to put three meals together.”

A year on, the Sonoma-based exchange now has 5,000 participants in 12 Bay Area counties, Papadopolous said. In Elk Grove alone, the exchange has registered about 1,000 people to the site since the March 28 launch and Papadopoulos says the effort has already collected nearly five tons of produce that otherwise would be headed to local landfills.

Papadopoulos’ harvest-turned-chicken feed was but a small example of a much larger problem. He cited Natural Resources Defense Council statistics that show 40 percent of food in America is wasted – about $165 billion annually. Shrinking the amount of food wasted by 15 percent, the NRDC said, would feed more than 25 million people a year.

The Elk Grove High School Future Farmers of America club on Friday posted an alert that it had 20 dozen eggs available for a local food closet or church pantry and expected to continue producing 12-15 dozen a week.

The Elk Grove Food Bank posted Tuesday that it was looking for 100 volunteers who could help harvest leftover crops from area farms. The organization, which has served Elk Grove for 40 years, also began serving south Sacramento this year.

It was an example of how the community exchange hopes to mobilize so-called “glean teams” – volunteers who help harvest fruits and vegetables at farms, orchards and homes. City leaders also hope the site will attract growers and ranchers, restaurants and farmers’ markets, even backyard gardeners.

“If food is made, people can share it through the social network,” said Davis, who began talking in February with CropMobster about a pilot program in his city. “It also solves an age-old social problem.”

Take the load of Baja California-grown cucumbers Jordan’s River City Produce hauled away to its new home at the Elk Grove Food Bank Thursday afternoon. Jordan is a man on the move with clients in 25 states across the country and in Sacramento.

“We ship by air, by rail, over land by truck, on vessels,” Jordan said. “I’ll even carry the product across the street if I have to.”

But sometimes, time, market, logistics and other factors conspire against his perishable shipment. That’s where the Elk Grove Community Exchange can come in, Jordan said.

City leaders have endorsed the joint venture, seeing it as a way to preserve Elk Grove’s unique rural character, while helping to solve the growing issue of food insecurity in the city.

Councilman Patrick Hume listened intently from the dais as Papadopoulos presented his pitch to the council days before Elk Grove Community Exchange went live.

“You’re onto something here,” Hume said. “This is an elegant solution to a complicated problem.”

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