From Email Pioneer to Food-Waste Warrior: Second Act
By Susan J. Wells
- PUBLISHED April 12
- 3 MINUTE READ
A self-described “geek in jeans,” Gary Oppenheimer spent most of his career as a computer programmer. In fact, he helped pioneer the nascent commercial email services industry during the 1980s and 1990s, eventually becoming MCI Mail’s largest global sales agent, all while living in Manhattan on a used houseboat he bought cheap.
When MCI’s venture began to fade—around the time of the company’s merger with Verizon in 2005—Oppenheimer began to feel the tug of the land. He moved to a rural property in Newfoundland, N.J., and became a master gardener, a Rutgers Environmental Steward graduate, an environmental town commissioner and director of a community garden.
“I wasn’t really thinking about what was going to come next,” he says. “But I had a solid background in computers and the knowledge of how to connect information.”
Turns out, those skills became the foundation for a successful second act.
A Harvest of Plenty
Over the next few years, Oppenheimer became a prolific gardener, ultimately producing much more than his own family could eat. One day, he decided to give nearly 40 pounds of his surplus produce to a local women’s shelter. They were very grateful, telling him what a treat it was to have fresh food.
“It was an epiphany moment,” he says. “If I had extra food from my garden, [I thought] there must be other people like me all over the country.”
Indeed, there were.
After researching the issue, he discovered that 42 million home and community gardeners exist nationwide, and 80% of them grow more than they can use. Meanwhile, one out of six people in the United States is food insecure, and 52% of the produce grown in this country isn’t consumed.
A New Path Takes Root
Realizing the extent of the food-waste problem, Oppenheimer identified “chokepoints” in the community-based, food relief network. “I saw that all these pieces were in place, but were side-by-side and disconnected,” he says. “So I set out to solve the disconnect.”
He launched a nonprofit called AmpleHarvest.org in 2009 to act as a bridge between excess food supply and demand in local communities. He was 56 at the time.
Using his technology background, he worked with a team of volunteers to create a website and public awareness program. Food pantries could register for the database; gardeners could search by zip code to find the nearest pantry accepting produce donations.
To date, nearly 8,400 food pantries across the country have registered. And the organization estimates that hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh produce have been donated.
“At its core, AmpleHarvest.org is the community in action,” he says. “It’s individuals nationwide sharing the excess bounty of their gardens to help feed neighbors in need.”
Sound Investing, Lean Living Paved the Way
Oppenheimer credits practical living and disciplined saving with enabling him to pursue his second act. For example, he sidestepped a lavish Manhattan lifestyle during his first career by living aboard his used boat.
“I was spending a great deal less money than many people I knew, so I saved much more over time,” he says. “And thanks to early advice from my father, I took full advantage of individual retirement plans [IRAs] when they were introduced in the mid-1970s, as well as other high-yield savings opportunities.”
He also envisioned an encore career that didn’t require a large, upfront investment of personal capital. Initial spending included $9 for the domain name and then $2,000 in incorporation and legal fees a year later.
“The bulk of it was not dollar bills; it was time,” he recalls.
And along the way, he secured vital external support—mainly in the form of grants and free advertising. The organization is now backed by the USDA, Google Inc., the National Gardening Association, the National Council of Churches and many faith and service organizations. It also had a relationship with the Obama Administration White House, working with Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.
His Motto: No Food Left Behind
As Oppenheimer continues to expand his program’s reach, he can’t help but remember his parents’ early admonishments to “finish what’s on your plate ... kids are starving in Europe.” Today, he’s undeniably proud of the fact that by working to decrease food waste, he’s also reducing hunger within the community.
“I would do it all again in a heartbeat,” he says.
Susan J. Wells is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly for Kiplinger’s custom content team. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, American City Business Journals, HR Magazine and many other digital, print and brand media.
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Read more from our Second Act series in From Ad Exec to Aquanaut.