During the summer after her sophomore year, Claudia Sandell '18 found herself immersed in a brand-new world, working to help a farming community in Bolívar, Ecuador, regain its water rights from a hydroelectric company.
The company built a dam that was causing problems for the farmers, who relied on a local river for survival. Sandell learned about the opportunity to assist the community from Politics Professor Heather Williams, and over the summer, she researched the dam's impact on the community, measuring river flows and speaking with farmers to learn more about how they accessed the water and their connection to the land.
"That was really pivotal for me to begin to understand farming as a means for sustenance and growing a local economy and the challenges that small farmers face," Sandell says. "Intermediaries are getting a lot of the profits, and communities are being left in the dust and remaining poor, while the food that is grown there is being exported to larger cities."
Sandell was a politics major, but her experience in Ecuador sparked a deep interest in the intersection between agriculture and food sovereignty. In May 2020, her passion for addressing food insecurity led her to The Farmlink Project, a volunteer organization launched by college students and recent graduates looking to stop hunger amid the pandemic. Farmlink connects farmers with food banks, ensuring fresh produce that would otherwise have been wasted makes it to the tables of hungry families.
At the time, Sandell was working at a seed company, and she became so involved with Farmlink that it was almost like a second full-time job. That fall, she was promoted to a team leader, and began managing volunteers, leading food sourcing and building relationships with farmers. As Farmlink grew, so did its need for new volunteers, and Sandell made a pitch to the Pomona community, posting about the project online. Her words resonated with biology major Emma Paulini '22.
"As a kid growing up, I had backyard gardens and grew tomatoes and beans," Paulini says. "I've always been interested in agriculture on a mini-scale and the outdoors and conservation. I went to Farmlink's information session and even through Zoom, I could feel such a community through the virtual screen. It seemed like such a good combination of my interests and a great community."
Paulini started volunteering with Farmlink this past spring and was placed on the Hunger and Outreach team. Once Farmlink finds a load of surplus fruit or vegetables from a farmer, she finds a food bank or other community partner within the area that can receive the produce. This involves "a lot of cold calling," Paulini says, and hours studying Google Maps, as the goal is to keep the fruits and vegetables within a 250-mile radius to "maximize the freshness of the food and keep it local."
Sara Sherburne '19 is on the same Farmlink team as Sandell, and is continuing the work she started at Pomona, where she was involved in a sustainability group on campus. She wrote her senior thesis on zero-waste campuses and food waste, and says she is "passionate about how we have all this access to food but we're throwing away 30 to 40 percent of it in the U.S, while at the same time there are so many people who need food."
At the start of the pandemic Sherburne was in Paraguay, serving in the Peace Corps. When she was evacuated and sent home to the United States, "I was feeling entirely purposeless and just applying to jobs, feeling very alone," she says. "I didn't have a community I could connect with on a regular basis." Sherburne read an article about farmers having to throw away produce and dump milk because of pandemic-related supply chain issues, and "it just broke my heart," she says. "I was feeling entirely helpless."
Farmlink changed everything. Once she heard about the project last summer, she knew it was the perfect fit, and Sherburne was soon cold calling farmers, asking if they had any products that were at risk of being tossed. She left a lot of voicemails and heard "no" many times, but was overjoyed when a farmer said yes, he had 40,000 pounds of shallots that he was going to throw away.
"It ended up going to a food bank pretty close to my house, and I went to the first delivery of 40,000 pounds of shallots," Sherburne says. "It was so cool walking into the warehouse and seeing literally 40,000 pounds of shallots that would have been thrown in a landfill. I was thinking about how all it took was a phone call and a tiny bit of research. It was so fulfilling and rewarding."
Over the last year, Farmlink—which recently received the Congressional Medal of Honor Service Act Award—has been able to move over 34.3 million pounds of food.
"We are continuously learning from local organizers who have been doing this work for decades," Sandell says. "I've never been a part of something where we had this big problem we knew we wanted to solve, and we were actually able to make a dent in it. At Pomona, we learn so much about how to look at the world through a critical lens, but at times it feels daunting to even try to address the problems we find in our current systems. Farmlink taught me that no level of experience is too little to begin to make a difference."
Sandell now works for a tech startup called Wholechain, which enables companies to track and trace products across their supply chains using blockchain, helping them understand and address problems like where waste and emissions most occur and identifying unjust labor practices and malfeasance that undermines safety standards. Sandell says volunteering with Farmlink gave her the confidence to join this new venture, and boosted her "optimism in terms of what young people can do."
Paulini and Sherburne feel the same way. Farmlink "has definitely been a great foundation for anything else I want to do in the future," Paulini said. Sherburne is now working for the town of Truckee, California, in its sustainability department, and believes Farmlink "has definitely opened up a horizon for me. It is deeply satisfying to work on making sure this food doesn't go to a landfill, while helping a farmer from having to throw this food away while also giving it to someone who needs it."