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Hunger Proof Cities

To help you get further acquainted with us and our work, we have prepared this brief overview of the Urban Farmers project, its purpose, and our future direction, including how we intend to use your contribution.

Hunger in America is at an all time high (report) and while the long, drawn-out recession and the equally long, drawn-out recovery have taken their toll on communities across the country, shortage of food is not one of the problems. In fact, more than 40% of all food grown in America goes to waste. Basically, while food rots on one end of town, people go hungry on the other end. The problem is locating the excess food and moving it to where it is needed at a reasonable cost. We think this is a problem we can solve.

Real Cost
The two pictures below were captured on the same day. They vividly illustrate the problem of access to commercial food. There are two facts that will put these pictures into perspective:


Fact 1: A farmer has to grow 5 pounds of food to feed a person for a day.
Fact 2: Since the fruit we harvest is donated and our organization is run by volunteers, we can harvest and deliver fruit at an operating cost of about 12 cents per pound.

On the day these pictures were taken, we harvested 750 pounds of persimmons. This is enough food to feed 150 people three square meals for a day at a cost of about 60 cents per person. The organic persimmon photographed in the store weighed about 5oz. At a cost of $2.29 each, it will cost about $37 to a feed a person for a day. It’s hard to believe these figures, and we encourage you to double check our math! But even if our math is flawed and our assumptions are way off, you can see how the cost of feeding the hungry can be reduced drastically.

Social Production
In its most basic form, this project is like a factory. We take in raw materials (fruit on the tree), process it (harvest), and deliver the finished goods to where it’s needed. The only difference is that instead of the profits going to the shareholders, the beneficiary of the surplus is society.

Project Design
Clay Shirky, NYU professor, in this TED Talk estimates that there is over a trillion hours per year of cognitive surplus (volunteer time + connectivity tools) available to solve problems. In fact, this is the idea that powers open source software and projects like Wikipedia, where a relatively small group of people work together to create value for the rest of us. The one common feature that technology-based collaborative systems have is that participants can be anywhere, doing what they want for the project, at a time of their choosing.

We are hard at work building a physical version of open source production. We believe we can mobilize a large number of people and design the project where each volunteer is asked to do a little, then direct the collective energy of the group at a specific problem through a well-designed set of methods and procedures supported by robust systems.

Project Expansion
When working with social production organizations, such as The Urban Farmers, two questions deserve our attention, 1) what happens to the costs of the production as the organization grows and 2) how do you expand the “factory” so more people can be involved?

The answer to the production cost question is, if we try and use the corporate model of growth which requires us to hire employees and managers, and managers to manage the managers, the production cost, in spite of donated labor and donated material, can quickly exceed the cost of buying the food.

Instead, this project can expand horizontally into other communities, near and far, at very low costs, supporting semi-independent (or totally independent) gleaning chapters. All of our software tools such as the registration system, relationship management tools, distribution, communication and project management tools are cloud-based and are either free or cost very little. In addition, our outreach programs, legal structure and community engagement work are shareable and free.

As for keeping the cost of local production down, the same deployment design allows local teams to use our “lending library” of tools and equipment to perform multiple harvests at multiple locations simultaneously. By using online management tools, we can deploy micro-resources to solve micro-problems, expanding the platform where the work can be performed. A fully democratized system of volunteering, where community members can work when they want, where they want, with whom, and then be able to donate the result of their work to a charity of choice is central to keeping the community engaged and costs of operation in check.

The project can also expand vertically “beyond fruit.” Schools throw away a lot of perfectly good food; so do grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and many other entities along the food chain. Once we have the infrastructure and the resources to handle harvesting fruit, the same infrastructure can be used to capture other types of goods for donation to the needy.

We believe that hunger-related suffering inflicted on less fortunate Americans is a man-made problem that can be solved through innovation using three uniquely American values: collaboration, civic engagement, and generosity. We are hard at work building the infrastructure that will transform hunger in America and are delighted that you have decided to join us in this effort.