To do the impossible, you must first believe it isn’t.
“If you ask the right questions and you respond to the answers, you can actually get people to see things in different ways, and you yourself can also, by the way, learn from that same experience and sometimes see things from a different perspective.”
Toni Reece: Gary, thank you so very much for agreeing to take part in this project, and before we begin the questions, can you please introduce yourself?
Gary Oppenheimer: Sure, I’m Gary Oppenheimer. I’m a computer nerd from the 1970s. I’m also a master gardener; I’m a Rutgers environmental steward; I’m a director of a community garden in our town; and I’m also the founder of ampleharvest.org which is a site that strives to diminish hunger in American by enabling millions of backyard gardeners to find neighborhood food pantries that they can donate their excess produce to.
Toni: Oh my, well based on your introduction, it’s a great lead-in for the very first question, which is, when you think about what you do and those around you, who do you inspire and how do you go about that?
Gary: I’m not sure inspire is the right word; I think I try to simply lead by example in many arenas. In my early computer days, I actually designed an early email system in the 1970s, and so I helped to roll out commercial email in the 1980s, and you can see where that’s gone off to. I designed what I believed to be the first electronic newsletter back in the mid 1980s to try to get people to slowly move away from paper. My friends and neighbors have considered me a tree hugger for the longest time, so I decided to put my money where their mouth was, and I bought I think it was the 73rd hybrid Honda sold in America in April, 2003, and I have since lectured on hybrid cars.
I am a long-distance cyclist. I try to get people outside in cycling and just good exercise and good transportation. My daughter has ended up as a nationally ranked cyclist I think partially as a result of that. We heat our house with wood; we live in North Jersey where we have lots of it. And so I’ve ended up being a lecturer also on things like heating with renewable resources like catalytic converters in your fireplace and stuff like that.
And, lastly, with my getting involved with hunger issues in America with Ample Harvest speaking to people about the depth and scope of the hunger situation that we have in America, and I have found that I’ve had to express things to people about hunger that go beyond simply throwing numbers. I can say that “X” million people in America don’t have enough food; that’s one thing. But if I say the number of people in the country that don’t have enough food approximately equals the populations of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York combined, that rings very differently with you and that seems to be resonating with people.
Toni: Then what I’m hearing from you, Gary, is that when you talk about who you inspire, whether that’s the right word for you or not, it’s really by what you’re doing with the cycling and the way that you heat your home and educate people on hunger issues; that it’s not just what you do but it sounds as though you’re also educating people along the way to these things that you do as well?
Gary: I think so. I try to find ways of expressing my ideas and my perspectives in an analogous way by presenting things in a way in which the words will connect where people think rather than the way I’m seeing it, I get ideas across. And again, by more doing stuff than preaching stuff, I think I can influence what goes on around me and changes start to take place. The hunger situation is an example. Many of these other things; these are things that anybody can do. Frankly, if you do things in your life that represent your belief in things, you may well find other people say “That makes a lot of sense”, and they follow the same path.
Toni: So when you work with others or you are doing by example and not just speaking, what do you do to help others explore their own potential in those areas? How do you go about that?
Gary: I like to challenge other people. My favorite Thursday night activity is going to a local tavern where my political beliefs are different from other people’s and actually engaging in debates. When I was in high school, I really enjoyed Plato’s Republic in which Socrates actually gets people to change their thinking, not by telling them things but simply by continually asking questions. And that’s where the learning process comes through. If you ask the right questions and you respond to the answers, you can actually get people to see things in different ways, and you yourself can also, by the way, learn from that same experience and sometimes see things from a different perspective.
So I find that challenging other people, I think, goes a long way towards that. I think also I like to be challenged by other people. I really like people to come at me with an idea or perspective that’s different from mine and see if my perspective stands up against theirs, or maybe mine needed to be changed a little bit.
Toni: So you basically use the power of your social interactions on a Thursday night going down to the local tavern and challenging and debating and wanting to be challenged back — but with the issues that are very important to you — so that you can possibly open up someone’s mind but also open your own.
Gary: Yes. But I mean, it’s not limited to Thursday nights at the tavern, but that’s the most frequent.
Toni: Okay. Gary, what do you need to be inspired?
Gary: I don’t need too much, frankly. I need really just two things; I need a problem and I need time. I’m a problem solver by design. When I see something that doesn’t look right, that doesn’t feel right, I’m driven to try to change it, try to solve it, try to fix it, sometimes to my life’s distraction; but that’s my nature. I like to solve problems and address those issues. And the other thing I frankly need is the time in which to do it, and I sometimes find myself short on that, but finding the problem is …
I will give you an example, and it’s pertinent to what we’re talking about. I do a lot of growing on our property here — we have a good size property — and two years ago I had a really large bounty in my garden, and it got to a point in which my wife said no more stuff in the house and I was giving away extra produce. But there is frankly only so many cucumbers you can give to friends and still have them call you a friend. I finally said, you know … I had like two large shopping bags of cucumbers and peppers and zucchini and tomatoes and what have you, and I couldn’t see the stuff going to waste. That just felt plain wrong to me, so I tracked down a battered women’s shelter here in our town, and I called them up and said would you like to have this, and they said “We’d love to”, so I went. There was 40 pounds of produce, and I gave it to them. And what was interesting — this was sort of almost a tipping point in everything — the woman who answered the door, a very, very pleasant woman, thanked me profusely and as I left she said “Thank you, now we can have something fresh to eat.” And that caught me; that’s an odd thing for somebody to say, and I went away thinking, “My God, what are these people just having canned vegetables and food all the time?”
Last year, I had again another 20 pounds of extra produce. I went back to the same place, same woman, same comment. In October 2008, I was asked to take over the community garden here in West Milford — a preexisting garden, 30 plots or so — and I agreed to do it. And while I was going through the old records and emails and stuff, I learned that, historically, towards the end of the summer as people were going away on vacation, getting overwhelmed with what they had grown or just getting bored, they were leaving food to rot in the garden, and I thought that was just plain wrong. So I realized we had a problem here. And I also, with my experience with this battered women’s shelter, I realized there was a problem in terms of people being hungry. I said I’m going to create a committee in this community garden, and we’re going to take the extra food from the garden and donate it to local food pantries. It seemed like a very simple, logical thing to do, food pantry, shelters, what have you, in town.
I went on Google to try to find all of the food pantries that we had, and Google said the nearest was 25 miles away in another town. It turned out we have more than six here in our town, and that’s the point in which I realized that if I’m having this problem as a gardener and also as a director of a community garden — finding places to get my extra produce to — other people across the country must be having the exact same problem.
That was in March, 2009. I got up the next morning, and I went on the internet, and I grabbed the domain of ampleharvest.org. And I had this vision at that point that we have a problem. There’s hunger in America and we have a problem; there’s too much food over here — that problem, rather, being the solution — and I designed a website that could bring the extra food in people’s gardens to their neighborhood food pantries, and effectively ampleharvest.org was put in place in five, six weeks. We got it out, and it’s been promoted across the country. In fact, we’re just shy now of 1,000 food pantries in America registered on ampleharvest.org. So basically, I saw a problem and I saw a solution.
Toni: And so that was what you needed for inspiration, was to be able to look for those ideas, look for those challenges. You saw that, you went back, you revisited it, and the inspiration came to you to not only meet your own needs of being able to give away the produce that you were producing and also the community garden, but also then to help others, and so I think that’s really amazing.
Gary: And the thing is, I had the time to do it. The frustrating thing is I’ve had other problems that I’m working on — I’ve got inventions I’ve had no time to invent — but this was something that was the nexus of everything. Everything came together; the right problem, the right solution at the right time in our country’s history, and it’s been really interesting to watch as it grows.
Toni: It is interesting. Based on everything that you’ve done, you’ve spoken to in the beginning of this interview to have this be the one that you found the time for is a very interesting moment, isn’t it?
Toni: Let me ask you — we have about four minutes left to the interview — what do you need when you’re working on Ample Harvest or you’re working on other challenges and needs? What do you do, Gary, to continuously explore your own potential?
Gary: I like challenges, and I keep looking for places where I can do things I haven’t done or I haven’t done well; and I keep on trying to improve them. As a cyclist, when I come to a hill, I tend to accelerate up hills. I leave other cyclists who I’m riding with behind, and I actually shoot ahead. Not that I’m a Lance Armstrong. I’m not, but I find that when I’m challenged with a problem (and the hill being a problem), I tend to go at it really hard and overcome it. I just have that drive in myself.
Toni: And that’s how you explore your own potential, by continuously pushing yourself towards those challenges, to overcome them?
Gary: I wouldn’t say pushing. I’d say driving. Pushing implies something that you’re going beyond your limits; but I have a drive to take on the things that I can, things that I haven’t done well, things I could do better, and this has been in me my whole life. My mother says that when I was a child I used to be hyperactive for days on end, days on end, and then I would just fall asleep for like 24 hours — something like that — having burned out my batteries and needed to recharge them.
Toni: Well, I tell you, it just is absolutely amazing how you speak about what you need to explore your own potential as challenges, but yet how you inspire or help others explore their potential is to, if I may use the word, challenge them in a debate and debate them on issues and challenges to learn so they can learn from information and you can learn from that; so it’s interesting how that comes full circle. I appreciate so much your time on this interview, and it sounds as though Ample Harvest is providing a service that we so desperately need in this country, and so I know that there are many people who will listen and read this interview that will learn and benefit from it, so I so appreciate your time with that.
Gary: It’s my pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to share this with other people, and I have to tell you, I also very much appreciate the opportunity to listen to some of the other people who have been interviewed and to learn from them — get some insights on how they’ve done things in their lives.
Toni: Well thank you very much. There are amazing people that are doing things from the smallest gestures to the most grand, and they are donating their time to this project, including yourself; and I so appreciate that and thank you so much, Gary, for what you’re doing and your time today.
Gary: Thank you very much.
For more information about Gary Oppenheimer: www.ampleharvest.org