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Stanford junior wins 2021 Congressional Medal of Honor Society Service Award

James Kanoff, who co-founded the Farmlink Project at the start of the pandemic, will share a 2021 Congressional Medal of Honor Society Service Award for his work connecting farmers with fresh food to food banks.

When childhood friends, now college students James Kanoff and Aiden Reilly were sent home to Southern California last March – Kanoff from Stanford and Reilly from Brown University – they learned that their local food bank was struggling to keep up with demand during the pandemic.

James Kanoff (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

After hearing that the nationwide shutdown was forcing farmers to throw away tens of millions of pounds of fresh food every day, the friends decided to act. It was a decision that led to the Farmlink Project, a nonprofit organization that buys surplus fresh food from farmers and delivers it to food banks.

In recognition of their work, Kanoff and Reilly will receive a 2021 Citizen Honors Service Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in mid-July. The awards honor outstanding Americans who have performed extraordinary acts of courage or service.

The society commended their “selfless service as they responded to a nationwide crisis during (and because of) a global pandemic.”

Over the past year, the Farmlink Project has delivered more than 30 million pounds of fresh farm products including broccoli, cauliflower, eggs, potatoes, oranges, papaya and pineapples to food banks across the country.

Making a big problem small

Kanoff said he and Reilly started out small by reaching out to individual farmers and food banks to understand their needs and determine how they could help.

“We decided we would try to make one delivery from farm to food bank for an item that the food bank needed, and then figure out the rest from there,” he said.

“We called hundreds of farmers and found one with surplus eggs. At the time, we did not have transportation, so we rented a truck, picked up the eggs and delivered them to our local food bank in Santa Monica, California.”

They invited other students to join through a volunteer application on their website. The notice attracted thousands of students who began contacting farmers and food banks, holding fundraising campaigns, picking up and delivering food and running the nonprofit.

“In times of adversity and crisis like the pandemic, we have to come together to help each other,” Kanoff said. “Whether big or small, we wanted to do our part. Call it naïve, but we truly believed we could do something and as college students, we were going to try.”

Won support across the country

Kanoff said the Farmlink Project has attracted 450 students and recent graduates to date, including 75 students from Stanford.

“There is so much work to be done to build a more sustainable food system and we are eager for more Stanford students to join our team,” he said.

Kanoff, a junior majoring in symbolic systems, said the project won widespread support.

“We have had help from people across the country, including students, faculty members, farmers, truck drivers, food banks, food distribution companies and members of the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said. “All of them have played a role in our success.”

The organization, which is now focused on long-term organizational stability, is currently looking for a director of development to oversee fundraising programs and financial stewardship – its first full-time, salaried position.

Stanford students active in Farmlink

Kanoff said four Stanford students are serving as team leaders: Stella Delp, Kevia “Kiki” McComb, Alexandra “Alex” Tsai and Caroline Ricksen.

Ricksen, a Stanford junior majoring in symbolic systems, started out as a member of the team handling end-to-end logistics – organizing pickups and deliveries. Over the past year, she has also unloaded a few trucks.

Currently, she is the organization’s head of operations, with a specific focus on the financial, legal and fundraising sides of the organization.

Ricksen, who is attending Stanford remotely in Orinda, California, said she missed the communities she had been part of at the university.

“By joining Farmlink, I became part of a strong community inspired by a common mission,” she said. “I saw so many headlines about immense injustices occurring around me, and Farmlink gave me an avenue to do something, to make an impact and inspire others.”