05:24 - Source: CNN
CNN Heroes: Aidan Reilly

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Los Angeles CNN  — 

When a group of college kids channeled their pandemic woes into action, they never imagined the project would fuel a nationwide movement to tackle hunger and food waste.

But that’s exactly what the Farmlink Project has done since 2020, bringing together hundreds of young volunteers to rescue nearly 77 million pounds of excess food and deliver it to those in need. The organization’s efforts help farmers, the environment, and people struggling to feed their families all at once.

“In the United States, 40 million Americans are food insecure. They don’t know where their next meal is going to come from,” said Aidan Reilly, who co-founded Farmlink. “Meanwhile, in the United States we’re throwing out over 100 billion pounds of food every year.”

Launched during the height of the pandemic in spring 2020, Reilly says the project was initially supposed to help struggling families and food banks.

“There was so much bad news,” said Reilly, who was then a junior at Brown University and attending classes remotely from his home in Los Angeles. “Economic collapse, political protests, social protests. It felt like there was very little that you could do about it.”

Reilly and his childhood friend James Kanoff were reading and watching news about food shortages, and they learned that area farms were forced to destroy excess produce that they couldn’t sell, especially with restaurants, schools and hotels closed.

“We were seeing photos that were remarkable. Like mountains of potatoes in someone’s backyard, or millions of gallons of milk just being dumped into the dirt,” Reilly said.

Reilly, Kanoff and a core group of friends, including Will and James Collier in Connecticut, worked together over Zoom, text and e-mail to contact farms coast to coast.

“We didn’t really set out to start a nonprofit,” Reilly said. “We just thought, ‘There’s so many people suffering, if we can figure out one way to help then that’ll be great.’”

In California, they found a farmer who had 13,000 eggs that could be donated, and Reilly offered to do the pickup and delivery himself.

CNN Hero Aidan Reilly

“That was the very first drive,” Reilly said. “Me, on the 405 freeway, getting honked at, with eggs bouncing around in the back, just trying to get them to the food bank so that we could feed a couple thousand people.”

That was the first of many more deliveries. With “we’ll come to you,” as their catchphrase, the group rented U-Haul trucks and attempted to do all the food pickup and deliveries themselves.

“We had a lot of hiccups in the beginning,” Reilly said. “We broke axles … loaded in 40,000 pounds of potatoes the wrong way (and) had to try to drag them out using another truck and a rope. But we made it work.”

The students ultimately got a welcome boost in the form of a grant from Uber Freight, Reilly said, and with the help of professional drivers, they moved more than one million pounds of produce from farms to food banks within just two months, transforming their passion project into a massive logistics operation in the process. Word spread, and more and more young people at home during the pandemic reached out to help.

“We were just lucky enough to be the first to gather these people together,” Reilly said. “The 70 million pounds of food moved – that has come from the efforts of this group. They’re volunteering their time when they can to help feed people they might never meet.

Farmlink has worked with more than 100 farms and 300 communities in the US, rescuing and moving enough food to distribute more than 64 million meals, Reilly said.

“The bigger Farmlink gets, the bigger our worldview gets,” he said. “There are everyday Americans, people who live next to you and me, who don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids. And that’s exactly who we’re doing this for.”

Want to get involved, check out the Farmlink Project website and see how to help.

To donate to the Farmlink Project via GoFundMe, click here