Founded as a resource to prevent food waste, the CropMobster network has grown into an online platform for farmers, food activists, and pantries to exchange resources. Designed to “ignite food system crowdsourcing,” CropMobster empowers local leaders to connect communities interested in sharing or trading goods, labor, excess food, events, and news to help end hunger and reduce food waste. CropMobster was established in the in 2013 and has expanded to serve farmers and local food leaders throughout California and the West Coast.
Food Tank interviewed CropMobster CEO and Co-Founder Nick Papadopoulos to learn about the recent additions to CropMobsters’ sustainable food networking platform since Papadopoulos spoke at Food Tank’s 2016 Farm Tank Summit in Sacramento.
Food Tank (FT): Describe CropMobster’s evolution over the last four years. How has CropMobster’s network expanded from its original purpose?
Nick Papadopoulos (NP): For starters, my wife Jess and I had no clue that we’d be hawking and selling shirts like Re-Pear the System and Talk Dirt to Me. CropMobster started on my family’s farm in 2013 as an instant alert and crowdsourcing system. I was in the veggie cooler and saw a few boxes of perfect produce about ready to get chucked, and it drove me insane enough to take action. At that time our singular purpose became one of using technology to rally community members to make sure food at risk of going to waste found a home, either through flash sales and donations or activities like gleaning or bartering.
This food waste prevention focus remains core to our work. However, individuals, small businesses, and nonprofits started using our platform for many purposes and at many scales—from fundraising and jobs to product sales, crowdfunding, sourcing animal feed, and events. What we heard from folks and what we saw in the data was the need to support a range of food system transactions, relationships, and actions. In one typical day, we might help broker five tons of oversized cucumbers for donation, help sell pork for a local pig farmer, find candidates for a non-profit looking for a new operations director, or locate a lawn mower for a community garden.
The next learning [curve] came when we realized that our greatest impacts were occurring when we had local, inspired leaders facilitating the CropMobster exchange in their communities. Sort of like a traditional ombudsperson but with some new gear, we call ourselves Food System DJ’s or Switchboard Operators. Ideally, this position works just as much out in the streets and fields, as behind a screen managing their exchange. But this on-the-ground role in communities is highly interdisciplinary and takes a diverse skillset. We needed to train people to do this work. So we designed CropMobster University, and we began looking for complementary models—like Economic Development Agencies, universities, or Local Food Councils—to partner with us.
This brings us to today, where CropMobster is hungry to partner with bold community leaders like universities or Food System Councils to launch and manage inspired local food networks or community exchanges.
FT: How is CropMobster training and growing local food leaders? In what ways have you seen these local food system Switchboard Operators benefit their communities?
NP: In 2016 we launched CropMobster Sacramento in partnership with an exceptional regional non-profit called Valley Vision. They had received grants from the Wal-Mart Foundation and Bank of America to begin working with CropMobster. Two Valley Vision team members, Robyn Krock and Adrian Rehn, took our training and began working as Switchboard Operators out of their region’s exchange. One day a local gleaning organization called Harvest Sacramento posted that there were 30,000 lbs of watermelons they had the opportunity to glean the next day from a generous farmer’s field. There wasn’t a lot of time. A sizeable volunteer mobilization was needed. Adrian moderated and published the alert but then leveraged his connections and within a few hours over 20 volunteers rallied and gleaned a huge volume of watermelons which Harvest Sacramento delivered to the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.
As part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative we have received a multi-year commitment to run CropMobster Merced in partnership with the University of California Merced Campus. Here’s what leaders in this community are thinking about the potential CropMobster Merced can bring to their community. Members of the Merced Community, like Bill Gibbs, the Executive Director of Merced Food Bank, have commented, “Merced County is one of the most impoverished counties in the state, with at least 35 percent food insecure population. I am thrilled that CropMobster & UC Merced have decided to launch the Merced Community Exchange to serve organizations like ours. With this effort, we anticipate growing our own capacity for impact at the food bank but most importantly helping to grow the capacity of our 100-plus partner agencies who daily need support in meeting the needs of the food insecure. Whether helping us grow a gleaning program, raise funds, or source food donations, we anticipate that this platform and trained team are going to be a tremendous asset to our Food Bank and our community, and we are grateful.”
FT: How is CropMobster helping form an alternative food system economy? Why is this essential?
NP: I can humbly say that, after facilitating thousands of impacts large and small, it is without a doubt clear to me that local food systems can grow stronger and more resilient by having community-led exchanges guided by trusted, local leaders to support new connections and solutions. There are so many great projects, initiatives, and organizations in each foodshed working on crucial pieces of the puzzle. From food waste reduction to local economic development, having a free shared communication, and an action platform that helps bond these efforts together is something any community can benefit from and needs.
FT: Since its founding, how has CropMobster helped reduce and raise awareness of waste in the California?
NP: I think we forget that from a true problem-solving standpoint there are many ways to scale and help drive lasting change. One way—and I think everyone needs to take a big gulp of this one—is to set your ego aside, set an example of action, and generate a powerful story that others learn from and feel inspired by. In this sense, I am honored that the story of Jess and I seeing food go to waste in our community and deciding to act was shared throughout the world in our first few years. From TIME magazine to Central Chinese TV, the story and vision were spread widely. While the CropMobster communities we have running have found a home for millions of pounds of food at risk of going to waste, I think our largest impact has been that our story scaled at just the right time to help spark a wave of innovation, awareness, and action.
And now, four years since our start, we feel grateful and blessed that our small team has made it through our version of “Survivor” to keep working, driving impact, and supporting communities.
FT: In what ways do the initial goals of CropMobster still guide your work today?
NP: From the get-go, we have had the goal of reducing food waste by driving sales, donations, trading, and making connections. This remains a core part of our values and organizational DNA. But beyond food waste, we also to realize we are wasting a huge amount of human and community potential and leaving a huge reservoir of value on the table for communities to realize.
We also believe in the value of community capacity and relationship building. Each day we wake up thrilled to have the chance to help folks out even in situations where there isn’t a dollar involved but other forms of value like new relationships. It’s our favorite job in the world, and we want to reach everyone who wants to team up. That’s the goal; easier said than done though.
FT: What are your hopes for the future of the CropMobster network?
NP: Each week we get requests for what we do from all over the U.S. and the world. We want to more easily serve these folks and see that these communities get the help they need.
This year we aspire to expand to the entire state of California (and are working to recruit sponsors) and partner with two to four counties or regions to begin expanding to other states and countries. Also we are looking for a trusted, global non-profit organization with a wide reach to team with us to more rapidly expand our reach and fundraising, and with this in place, inspire more donors and social impact investors to take part in this journey.
With a few more pieces and partnerships in place we can more rapidly deploy our technology and educational model to food systems throughout the world, most ideally via regional university partners or local food councils. As mentioned this is a very exciting path because, not only can we help spark immediate food system impact, but also help sprout the next wave of food system leaders.
To learn more about Nick Papadopoulos and CropMobster’s work supporting local foodsheds, listen to his recent interview with the Peak Prosperity Podcast.