College students on a mission to donate leftover food

Source: Jane Black, Washington

Not to make you feel guilty, but think for a minute about what you threw out of your refrigerator this week: that wilted lettuce, the yogurt that had passed its expiration date, the Tupperware full of mac and cheese that the kids had to have but never finished. It adds up.

Now imagine the amount of wasted food in a huge cafeteria that serves thousands of meals each day, a place like the South Campus Dining Room at the University of Maryland. That’s what three students did one day back in 2010. The quantities of soup, roast turkey, pasta and salads were so jaw-dropping, they decided to do something about it. They created the Food Recovery Network.

Initially, the project was limited in scope, remembers 23-year-old Ben Simon, the network’s co-founder and executive director. Once a week, five volunteers would show up at the South Campus dining hall to pick up leftovers and drive them to area shelters. Even that modest effort yielded huge hauls of food, an average of 150 to 200 pounds each night. By 2012 graduation, the network had donated about 30,000 meals to Washington shelters.

Not content with that, the network began working with other universities to start their own recovery programs. Last year, students at 12 campuses “rescued” 120,000 pounds of food, mostly from dining halls but in some cases from off-campus restaurants and other venues.

Food waste is shaping up to be a big issue in 2013. The numbers show why. Americans throw out 40 percent of their food, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, a total of $165 billion worth of food each year. In food service alone, including restaurants and cafeterias, waste accounts for $8 billion to $20 billion, according to LeanPath, a company that provides automated food waste tracking systems.

Food recovery isn’t new, of course. DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that serves meals to the needy and provides culinary job training, is a pioneer in food rescue; last year its Campus Kitchens Project, in which students transform unused fresh food from dining halls, grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets into meals, recovered more than 400,000 pounds of food. But bringing food recovery to more colleges is important, says Dana Gunders, the author of the National Resources Defense Council report.

“Wasting food is a learned behavior,” she said, noting that the amount Americans throw away has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s. “By recovering food on college campuses, it trains young people to be aware of this issue. Just having it on the radar will help people make the right choices.”

University of Maryland Dining Services was aware that it was wasting food, says Bart Hipple, its assistant director of communications. It had removed trays from one of its dining halls, a popular strategy on college campuses that discourages students from taking more than they need and reduces energy and water consumption because the trays don’t have to be washed. But until the Food Recovery Network students showed up, there was no easy way to donate leftovers.