Anna Laws '14
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna Laws ’14 was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. For seven months, she worked as a community health facilitator while polishing her Spanish skills, learning basic Quechua, and having the adventure of a lifetime.
The Peace Corps had been Anna’s dream since she was a Potomac student. She discovered her passion for Spanish on a memorable trip to Spain, led by Upper School teacher Daniel Shannon. After graduating, she majored in public health and minored in Spanish at the College of William & Mary.
“At a certain point, I realized that my interest in health and my love of Spanish could come together. I knew that the Peace Corps would be the perfect opportunity to start combining my two areas of interest.”
However, soon after the pandemic struck, Peace Corps members worldwide were sent home from their posts, regardless of how long they had served. For Anna, this meant an abrupt departure from the small farming community she had grown to love. It also meant that she would have to come up with a new plan for her future.
“It was very daunting to suddenly have to leave,” she reflects. “I felt a lot of disappointment and confusion at having to move back to the United States when I wasn’t ready for that to happen yet. And there was so much uncertainty about what I would do next, especially when the pandemic meant that I couldn’t even do simple things like visiting my grandparents.”
Anna decided to move to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she soon realized that she could apply much of what she had learned in Peru to the local scene. She explains, “One of the things I did in Peru was spread nutritional awareness, which is a topic that I ended up becoming incredibly passionate about. Living in a small community where everyone is a farmer allowed me to witness the whole food cycle for myself, from food grown to food consumed. That experience led me to decide that nutrition and access to good food was something I wanted to focus on.”
As she became a regular volunteer with Charlottesville-area food banks, Anna discovered a problem. “A huge percentage of the food that we received was sugary or highly processed,” she says. “That was both strange and frustrating to see, because we were in an area with lots of farms. I couldn’t understand how we could be in a region with such an abundance of fresh, healthy food, yet hardly any of it was accessible to the food banks.”
Anna knew that access to healthful food was a challenge that would only increase with the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, by April 2020, the unemployment rate in the United States had spiked to 14.8%, affecting some 20.5 million people. While this statistic improved somewhat in the following months, it remained high, as many who had lost work struggled to find new jobs. As more and more Americans found themselves unable to meet their basic expenses and feed their families, they turned to food banks – some for the first time in their lives. Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, calculated in October 2020 that 17 million Americans have struggled to pay for food as a direct result of the pandemic. This, added to preexisting need, means that as many as 54 million Americans have experienced food insecurity in the past year.
Distressed by the quality of food the local food banks were offering, Anna began searching for ways to help. She found her answer in June 2020, when she came across a Washington Post story headlined “Extra food is rotting on farms while Americans go hungry. This group is trying to fix that.” It introduced Anna to the FarmLink Project, a small startup that had sprung out of the COVID-19 crisis and was looking for volunteers.
The story described the way that food on American farms had been going to waste while the pandemic progressed. The flagging economy had cut back farmers’ contracts, leaving them with millions of pounds of produce that had nowhere to go. Most of these farmers were unable to consider food donation; the expense required to transport the goods to places that could use them was simply too high, especially on top of the substantial losses farms were already facing.
FarmLink’s founders, James Kanoff and Aidan Reilly, realized that they could bridge the gap between farmers’ sudden surplus of crops and food banks’ need for more nutritious donations. They formed their organization with the goal of being a crucial bridge between field and table, paying farmers for produce they had not been able to sell and transporting it to the places where it was most needed. The article noted that everyone working with the startup was an unpaid volunteer – the founders included – and that money to support the effort came from donations.
Anna reached out to FarmLink immediately.
She recalls, “I’d seen videos on the news of farmers pouring out gallons of milk and plowing over fields of produce, and I knew that something had to be done about that. So I told Farmlink that I wanted to help in any way I could. They welcomed me, and I joined the team right away.”
At the end of the day, if there's anything we can collect or distribute that could help farms or food banks function better, that's what we want to do.
Anna describes FarmLink’s early efforts as “a ragtag group of young people figuring out how to turn a big idea into a streamlined process.” Her first volunteer job with the organization involved cold-calling farms and food banks across the United States, telling them about FarmLink and inviting them to become part of the project.
She remembers, “We were very small when I signed on to help – only about 20 people. The startup was very much in its first phase at that point, and we were learning how to create a sustainable way of doing business. Farmers work from sunup to sundown, and they don’t always know about things like the tax deductions they could get from donating their produce. That’s why it’s been so important to talk to them and keep those lines of communication open.”
Anna also helped out with several food deliveries. Her duties included making sure that any necessary paperwork was signed, unloading trucks, and helping food bank staff coordinate the distribution. She counts a delivery that she assisted with in La Plata, Maryland, as one of her most memorable experiences: “I ended up staying all day to help determine how the donations would get out to various parts of the community, During the process, I met a volunteer who turned out to be the wife of the chief of Maryland’s Piscataway Tribe. She told me that many of their people are food-insecure; they don’t have much access to fresh produce because it can be so expensive. She loved the idea of the FarmLink Project and asked me a lot of questions about it.”
When FarmLink received a small shipment of vegetables in the region shortly afterward, Anna knew exactly where it should go. Excited, she called the volunteer she’d recently met. Then, she says, “we set up a routine for shipping vegetables to the tribe every week. This is what’s so great about FarmLink – just by spending time at the food bank and talking to this woman, I was able to understand the need her community was facing, and we were able to do something about it. So much good can happen within a community just through word of mouth and getting to know people.”
After several months of working with FarmLink, Anna left Charlottesville to join her brother in Park City, Utah, where she found work as a ski instructor. “Getting to be outside, interacting with people, and doing something I love every day has been really fulfilling,” she remarks.
Even with such an active job taking up her working hours, Anna still made the commitment to devote a significant amount of time to FarmLink each week. As she adjusted to her new home, her position within the organization solidified and expanded.
Anna says, “As media attention grew, so did our ranks. Today, in the first half of 2021, there are more than 200 active volunteers. This has also meant that FarmLink has become much more structured over time. The core work of the organization focuses on three areas: farms, food insecurity, and the deals that connect the two. Additionally, we now have media, marketing, and finance teams. I serve as the point of contact for food bank deals on the food insecurity team.”
This means that Anna has an important role when it comes to figuring out the best place for food to be delivered. Rather than cold-calling, she’s told about food shipments by another volunteer, and then she uses strategies that FarmLink has developed to determine where it should go.
“Let’s say we get 10,000 pounds of potatoes from a farm in Idaho,” she says. “Using a database that we created, I’ll call around to all the closest food banks first, because that helps foster relationship-building between them and the farms. I’ll tell them that we have this shipment and when it needs to go out, and I’ll also ask whether they have the capacity to take shipments that large and what their storage spaces are like. Sometimes this can take up to two days of calling and playing phone tag with people.”
Anna has also been a key part of various research projects FarmLink has undertaken as it continues to evolve. Through a recent internal audit, she helped the startup calculate its net carbon footprint – an increasingly important figure to know as FarmLink’s reach expands and more food is transported from location to location. Anna and her peers learned that FarmLink is by and large an eco-friendly organization – for instance, keeping surplus food out of landfills has cut down on carbon emissions – but they are now more aware of the effects food transport may have on the environment, which will allow them to make informed decisions going forward.
A second project allows Anna to use the same passion for nutrition education that she cultivated in the Peace Corps. “FarmLink is trying to become more than just delivering produce,” she explains. “One thing we have started doing is compiling a list of resources like nutrition classes that food banks can access. If we learn that a food bank provides nutrition classes, we ask them about how they get funding, who runs the courses, and how many people participate. We can then pass this information along to organizations that might like to do something similar but don’t know where to start.”
When the pandemic ends, initiatives like these will solidify FarmLink’s place in each community it helps, even if farmers’ supply of surplus produce decreases. And these aren’t the only ideas FarmLink has about how to continue its mission in a post-COVID world.
“Of course we’ll keep going,” Anna says. “Surplus is always a viable market, even if there will be less of it than before. We are also looking into imperfect foods – things like vegetables that are misshapen but still edible and nutritious – and surplus seeds, which we hope to give to farmers. At the end of the day, if there’s anything we can collect or distribute that could help farms or food banks function better, that’s what we want to do.”
Anna adds that her favorite part of her FarmLink experience – the thing that’s kept her going even during the longest games of telephone tag – is all the people she has met as a result of her service. She reflects, “Like the Peace Corps, this experience has shown me that a group of dedicated people can accomplish a great deal. That’s important, because sometimes the sheer level of need we see in communities can feel overwhelming. Figuring out how to address it is such a big task. But FarmLink has taught me how crucial it is to build those small steps toward finding a solution. Just knowing that there are people who can sit down and enjoy a healthy meal because of our work is an awesome feeling for me.”