Cathie Anderson

Sacramento food bank distributes tons of produce, with aid of CropMobster

Ross Fontanilla loads watermelons into a truck at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services warehouse on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. The food bank recently received a big donation of watermelons – 10,000 pounds – from volunteer gleaners, a number of whom were recruited via the online message board Cropmoster.com.
Ross Fontanilla loads watermelons into a truck at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services warehouse on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. The food bank recently received a big donation of watermelons – 10,000 pounds – from volunteer gleaners, a number of whom were recruited via the online message board Cropmoster.com. rpench@sacbee.com

Produce distributor Josh Jordan knew that 10,000 pounds of spuds at his Stockton warehouse had ripened past the point of survival in the retail pipeline, so he turned to the Sacramento region’s newest online message board, CropMobster.com, to find people who wouldn’t let the tubers go to waste.

After Jordan’s post went up, the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services responded by dispatching a truck to pick up the potatoes and then distributing them to local residents. Launched locally in April by regional think tank Valley Vision, CropMobster already is being used to redirect food to empty plates, recruit employees in the food industry, muster volunteer gleaners and sell farm goods directly to consumers.

CropMobster got its start in Sonoma County, where then-fledgling farmer Nick Papadopoulos saw seven boxes of vegetables return unsold from a farmers market.

“It drove me nuts,” Papadopoulos said. “I was like, ‘OK, by tomorrow, we’re finding a home for this.’... Initially, the vision was focused on finding a home for food that seriously would have gone to waste and thus all the resources and passion and love and energy and money that went into it would go to waste.”

He hopped onto social media platforms, and once he saw that individual consumers and nonprofits would respond to his appeals, he set out to develop a site geared toward the food and agriculture industries. He had success selling or giving away his excess produce and eventually began helping neighbors around Sonoma County.

As news media learned of CropMobster’s successes and covered them, Papadopoulos said, he was able to expand CropMobster to the Bay Area. But, he wondered, how could he replicate the concept in other areas of California and the nation?

“We knew we were doing something important, but we also knew we didn’t have a lot of answers,” Papadopoulos said. “I literally cold-called about 200 agricultural and business leaders around the country. ... One of them was Craig McNamara. He’s the president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture and a farmer in Winters.”

McNamara was the only person who returned Papadopoulos’ call, telling him that he loved the idea and wanted to know how he could help. He became Papadopoulos’ mentor, making suggestions that shaped the direction of the website. When Papadopoulos was ready, McNamara helped him to get a speaking engagement with members of the California Food Waste Roundtable. That was where Bank of America senior vice president Lori Rianda met Papadopoulos a little more than a year ago.

“I loved that it was focused on helping families access fresh, healthy food,” Rianda said. “It helped farmers economically, so they didn’t have to worry about processing leftover crops or taking them to the dump or trying to turn them into something they didn’t need. It seemed like such a great opportunity for the producers and the recipients to come together in a really nontraditional way. I gave Bill Mueller at Valley Vision a call.”

I loved that it was focused on helping families access fresh, healthy food.

Lori Rianda, Bank of America senior vice president

Mueller, Valley Vision’s chief executive officer, and Robyn Krock, who heads up Valley Vision’s Food & Agriculture portfolio, met with Papadopoulos and saw an opportunity to license the technology and put it to work.

“Just because of the work we’ve done on food, we were aware of the need for something like this, for this kind of forum or venue for people in the food sector to use to address food waste at this level,” Krock said. “It was created by a farmer, so he already had some insight into the kind of things a farmer might be trying to sell or have too much of.”

CropMobster Sacramento launched in mid-April, after a pilot project in Elk Grove had introduced Jordan, the produce distributor, and others to the concept. BofA donated $35,000 to do the initial implementation, and the Walmart Foundation provided $200,000 to Valley Vision to run it for a year. The website’s posts and content have expanded far beyond what Papadopoulos ever envisioned.

“In addition to surplus food, you’ve got folks straight-up selling at full price – sheep and cattle and eggs,” he said. “Initially, folks were thinking it was just for discounted sales, but no, now anyone can post a sale, and it’s really great that farmers and small businesses can make their valuable premium.”

At Valley Vision, CropMobster moderator, curator and facilitator Adrian Rehn has watched the site quickly evolve: “There was a strong food-waste focus, but working on it day to day, I’ve seen that shift over to ... economic development, helping out small businesses to sell their products. Farmers are finding new markets, and buyers finding some really awesome food and farm products by way of this platform.

“Seeing it evolve every day has been really rewarding for me,” Rehn said, as are the site’s “impact stories” of “having 10,000 pounds of potatoes and 10,000 pounds of watermelon get in the hands of the right people because of our outreach and our network.”

Those melons also went to the Sacramento food bank on Aug. 20, with a couple of assists from CropMobster.

Shawn Harrison, co-director of Soil Born Farms, said it was his understanding that people at his agency’s Harvest Sacramento gleaning unit learned that Vierra Farms had grown a large supply of melons on land owned by Three Rivers Farms and wanted some immediately harvested to help feed the hungry.

Harvest Sacramento’s Dominic Allamano connected with the farmer, David Vierra, and sent out emails to Harvest Sacramento’s network of volunteer gleaners, Harrison said. But Allamano knew he would need a bigger volunteer pipeline than his list if the organization was going to make any headway at Three Rivers in the time frame it had. So he posted appeals at CropMobster’s website and got 20 volunteers.

“We haven’t done a gleaning like that before where it’s really field-based, and you need lots of bodies and big bins,” Harrison said. “Pulling 10,000 pounds of watermelon out of a field in one day is usually done by experienced field labor. It’s just a testament that we’ve got a lot more potential as a community to feed our folks than we realize, and with more effort like that, we can increase those possibilities.”

Food bank CEO Blake Young said his organization distributes donated food to 220 food closets, pantries and small food banks all around Sacramento County: “Ever since we went and picked the watermelon up from the farm, we’ve been giving them out. There’s just a ton of folks who are super-excited on the receiving end, but there are also a ton of charities that are really, really appreciative.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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