The Nexus between Collaboration and Agricultural Development
About the Episode
Young people will play a key role in ensuring the future of the food and agriculture industries, but they don't know all of the answers. Providing the space for young people to not only learn from professionals in the field, but to challenge and change traditional systems will allow for collaboration across generations, communities, and political parties, ultimately building a stronger food and agriculture system for the future. In this episode of Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems, Ben Collier and Gloria Dabek consider different avenues for collaboration and examine ways young people are getting involved in agriculture today.
Natalie Burdsall: INTRO: Hello and welcome to the audio blog series Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems, produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Center on Global Food and Agriculture. Today, we will be listening in on a conversation with Ben Collier, CEO and co-founder of The Farmlink Project, and Gloria Dabek, the former Assistant Director of Government Relations at the Chicago Council.]
Gloria Dabek: My name is Gloria. I am the Assistant Director of Government Relations at the Council. I'm really excited to talk with you a little bit about, you know, all the stuff that you're working on and hear kind of your thoughts.
Ben Collier: My name is Ben. I am a founder and CEO at the Farmlink Project. We started Farmlink in April 2020, so right as the world was shutting down, there were countless stories about the commercial food waste industry being shut down, leading to huge piles of food sitting on farms and, at the same time, food banks were facing the longest lines they've ever seen. And this juxtaposition for us was the reason we got started and we thought, what if we can connect one farm with one food bank? So, I was still a junior at Brown at the time and studying applied math, so not necessarily related to this space. But we called hundreds of farmers and eventually got through to a farmer with a pile of two million pounds of onions with nowhere to go and he said, “If you get a truck here, you can take whatever you can.”
And that was really the start of Farmlink. We quickly had, fortunately, a lot of attention—people looking for a feel-good story at the start of the pandemic. A bunch of kids trying their best to address hunger and food waste was a good one and so that news and media attention led to a bunch of students joining our cause. And for the first 14 months we were 100 self-governing college students until I graduated, and we needed to start hiring for our operating model to continue scaling as students went back to in person classes.
We are now almost three. We turn three next month and we just recently delivered our hundred millionth pound of food to a community fighting hunger, mostly in the United States, across every state into some Canada and work in Mexico, as well, and it's been incredible. We have an amazing team and despite all of that, it still really does feel like we're at the start of this, this process and this journey of scaling and continuing to grow.
Well, Gloria this is, you know, two directional is my understanding, and so I'm curious to learn more. I kind of just shared a little bit of the arc of Farmlink. I'm curious to learn more about your trajectory into this space and where you hope for it to continue evolving from here.
Gloria Dabek: Yeah. Yeah. I guess I had a bit of a not super traditional trajectory, but I can quickly go over that and mostly focus on where I think I can go from here. But I worked... so I'm in the policy space. So, I started out working on the Hill and actually really focused on international kind of human rights-type issues. So, did some work on human trafficking, did some work on child protection and education, and then when I came over to the Council started working on food security on, kind of, at a global level and now, I'm obviously transitioning a little bit more to focusing on kind of the nexus between agriculture and climate. So, it has been a bit of an interesting arc for, you know, my own career, but I do feel really strongly that when working at the Council, I just think that the nexus of climate and agriculture is so important. And you know, I'm sure you're kind of familiar with how climate is really often viewed through an energy lens, and I think it's really important to keep working kind of from the agricultural perspective. So, I'm really excited about the work that you're doing. I think that's really awesome. And I'd love to hear more about how… because I work in policy… how you think that some of the things that you do can be better facilitated or better, you know, scaled through federal policy or state policy.
Ben Collier: I just came from a conversation with our head of policy, and I think we define three of our buckets of focus into supporting food donation, which is kind of encompassing a farmer advocacy, grower advocacy.
Gloria Dabek: Right.
Ben Collier: And through the means in which that can be donated. Then food access and ways that we can improve the dignity and humanity through which food is experienced and received through the charitable space. And then the third pillar is climate and understanding the overlap of the work we're doing with the broader, our broader focus on the environment. Up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gases are coming from food waste. And so, one of the things that we've been looking into is how can we better understand… how can we better understand the impact that broadly produce rotting in landfills is having on the environment and the impact that we're able to have by redirecting food that would otherwise, be going to waste back to people's homes? But from a policy perspective, I think that there's… there's a lot we can do. When it comes to supporting food donation, I think that broadening incentives for farmers to be donating is huge. There are some pretty lucrative state tax credits in California, for instance, if farmers choose to donate, and I've really yet to run across a major grower that actually is aware of it and positioned to take full advantage of the benefits available to them. And it really is a meaningful amount of money that could be earned back when they're making that decision on the bottom line between sending it to a terminal market, sending it back to a landfill, not even harvesting it to begin with. And so, I think that there's a lot that we can do at a state and federal level to incentivize that choice, you know, if we can make donating food when you're choosing between donating it and letting it go to waste, if we can make donation the most financially viable option for growers and shippers, I think that's a really strong way to ensure that food is going to end up in the charitable food space. We're trying to address that through the actual… our actual value add, which is offering the transportation and logistics to these growers and shippers.
So, if you're a Dole, you know, if you're a major, major grower, shipper—Dole, Taylor Farms, one of the other 30 or 50 that I was with in Orlando at this produce conference last weekend—they might have excess food in 20 different places around the country on a given day and to have that local relationship with that local food bank in every single place is not super feasible for them. And so, what we're trying to do with Farmlink is say, “Okay, wherever that is, we're your one point of contact that you can reach out to. We'll cover the transportation logistics and help get that to the local hunger fighting charities that can benefit from that food.” We, ourselves, are not that food bank and so tying it back to policy, I think whatever we can be doing to make, help ensure that that is the easiest and most financially viable option for growers is important.
I'm curious, Gloria, if that overlaps with anything you've spent time thinking about or focusing on?
Gloria Dabek: Yeah, absolutely. I don't know if, like, you had heard about or, like, seen anything that the Council has done previously. But we did focus a lot on the White House Conference last year on hunger, health and nutrition. And one of the big pieces of that was this kind of food-based component or food recovery component as well. And Natalie can probably even speak to this better than I can because she was in the room when they talked mostly to smallholder farmers who were really trying to find ways to connect to their local food banks but had a lot of difficulty doing that. And also, like, just, yeah, the logistics, but the cost as well. And so, I do think that this line is really interesting and from a policy perspective, like, some of the different, you know, food donation acts and things like that, like modifying them to be more conducive to some of this is, I think, really important as well. So, something that I've definitely thought a little bit about, not as much as you I'm sure, but I'm also just curious to hear a little about… I know kind of the one of the premises of this conversation is kind of youth engagement. And just as I mean, I am officially, I have been aged out of youth, but as a young person in this space, like, I would be really curious as to how you think other young people can get involved. I think a lot of older people in this space talk about how farmers are really, you know, aging out and like the average age is a lot older and stuff like that. So, I'd definitely be curious to hear how you think your peers can be engaged with the youth.
Ben Collier: Well, first of all, I think we say at Farmlink that… because we've had people of all ages join our team now, whereas we started out as college students, and we continue to say that youth is believing that change in systemic change is possible and believing in what we're trying to achieve. We have plenty of people on our team who really embody that. But to answer your question more directly, we did start Farmlink as a bunch of college students and I did not have exposure in this space previously. I've a strong connection to food personally, but the agriculture space, no. And so, I think it's… we need to just create opportunities for people to be immersed.
Since we started Farmlink, over 600 college students have been a part of what we've done and especially in those first couple of years, there weren't interns and employees, we were just all doing everything. So, you had figuring out how we're going to set up our financial structures and fundraise and tell our story and also call farmers and build relationships with food banks. As we evolve, we need a little bit of… we need the consistency of what we're doing in certain areas of our work just to legitimize and ensure accountability. But at the same time, this is allowing us to focus even more on figuring out ways that we can really create space for young people to be directly immersed in what we're doing.
Just this past month we launched a new fellowship we're calling the Field Fellowship. And it's this ten-month program where students can first spend a few months virtually, like an extra class, working with Farmlink where you're going to be exposed to how we're sourcing food and building relationships with farmers and food banks and transportation companies, but also evolving our brand and our fundraising messaging and our role in climate and policy. But then during the summer months you're going to go and be immersed at some point in the food system. You might be working at a farm, or a food bank, or a wholesale market, or something in between. And our goal is to then bring back these students, allow them to share and collaborate with each other and learn from each other, and then try and create solutions that they can collaborate with their community partners that they were on the ground with to see how they can build from there. And I think that Farmlink’s success early on was not because we were a bunch of students who had all the answers, or a bunch of students who saw things so radically different that it just clicked for us. We were just very fortunate to expose ourselves to a lot of people who could teach us and to have the opportunity to learn. And I think that there hasn't been a ton of that in this space. There hasn't been a ton of opportunity to give someone the chance to learn about our entire food system. And if we can give people more of the space to learn and ask questions and be exposed to the amazing perspectives that have been doing this for so long. You're right, it is an old industry, but that does mean we can also learn from a lot of people who have been doing this the same way for so long. And maybe, if we learn enough, see it a little bit differently. But I don't think it comes from necessarily just bringing in young people and then finding the answers, but rather bringing in young people, letting them learn a lot about how it's always been, but giving them the space to also ask why. And I think that combo has been really successful for us.
Gloria Dabek: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I mean, I have always known that I wanted to be in the policy space. And I think if I would have been exposed to, you know, work in food systems when I was in undergrad, like I would have... I would... I would have gotten to this place in my life a little bit faster, or found this a little bit faster, but it isn't something that I think is exposed in the same way that a lot of other things are.
Ben Collier: Can I ask then on the food policy side if you have the voice of... I'll say the youth? But like if you have the wisdom of dozens or hundreds of passionate, smart, motivated, well-connected young people at these different universities around the country, what is the potential of them in the policy space and how can they amplify not only their own voice, but the voice of the community partners that they're learning from?
Gloria Dabek: Yeah, I think there's a lot of potential. My partner really focuses on… he’s right now setting up a C4, which, you know, the distinction between the C3 and the C4 is really difficult and, like, when can you actually bring people in to do this graph grassroots mobilization and advocacy and you know, have like a lobby day or something where you can really afford to, like, pay for travel for youth or whoever to come in and talk to these policymakers who in a lot of cases are not… even if it's their state or their constituency, their district, they're not always making the trips where they need to go, right? So, if you're trying to come to them, I feel like there are just these weird, like, barriers sometimes. But I think that there's a lot of potential to... like what you were thinking, like, think around that a little bit, like a little differently than maybe we've been doing so far.
When I worked… one of the organizations I worked at prior to this was an organization that's an international NGO called Save the Children, and they have a really large grassroots network. And it was really cool to be able to go to the Hill and see that network mobilized. And I think young people are either current or potential future voters. And so, like, that's really important. And I feel like the level of civic engagement has been increasing and policymakers need to recognize that and be accountable to that. And I think as that is made clear to them, I think that influence only grows, you know?
Ben Collier: Yeah.
Gloria Dabek: So, I think there's a lot of really, really cool opportunities. I think the discourse, at least in the policy space around involving community-based organizations or young people. I mean, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to young people was because, like, this is the world that I mean, I would even include myself in this even though I'm not as young… but this is the world we're inheriting and so, like, it matters to us and I think... I just I think that there's a lot… a lot of room to grow in doing that kind of involvement and I've been really excited that there's been, like, this administration has definitely expressed more interest than the previous administration in kind of engaging with that. But I still think that there's a long way to go and, in many ways, we can't wait for them to tell us what to do. You kind of just have to like do it and then listen.
Ben Collier: I agree. I think in... you mentioned these community-based organizations. One thing we've been trying to think about is we are connectors at Farmlink. We don't own the food banks or warehouses that we send the food to. We don't own the trucks that were moving the food on. We are basically creating bridges of relationships that didn't exist before and adding funding and logistics that can really be helpful in accelerating those relationships. One thing I think we are well positioned to do is bring together stakeholders to amplify their voice in a more collective way. And when you initially think about Farmlink you might think of, “Okay, they should do farmers or food banks.” But we've, we've actually started focusing on is what would it look like for us to aggregate the last, a handful of the last mile community-based organizations that we're not even able to send food directly to right now. Because if we rescue 40,000 pounds of broccoli, a community fridge program in Brooklyn is not going to be able to benefit.
So, it needs to go to a food bank and then where that food bank can mix it with, you know, instead of getting ten pallets of just broccoli, you can get a pallet of broccoli and then a pallet of nine other varieties of food. And that could be useful for a smaller group.
But if we can really aggregate these community-based last mile organizations who are distributing food with dignity and with care and with consistency and they really, truly understand what their community needs… long term, I don't see Farmlink’s goal to be “Hey, we have thousands of distributions around the country, and we know exactly what it looks like to receive food with dignity.” But rather, there are thousands of community-based organizations around the country that know exactly what their community needs, and we're empowering them to have access to the fresh and healthy food they need to be able to do that. And so, while we're not at a point now where we're sending food directly to any of these groups, we are considering what would it look like to really bring in these stakeholders and have this community table that we can be learning from and receiving input as we build our organization, hopefully in the direction of getting them exactly what they need.
Natalie Burdsall: I want to thank you both, Ben and Gloria, for providing your thoughts and insights on youth engagement in global food and agriculture, ranging from the dignity of experiencing food to how we can create spaces for young people to get involved.
[Natalie Burdsall: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning in for this episode of Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode is produced and edited by me, Natalie Burdsall. Thank you for listening—we’ll see you again next week.
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