THIS IS CRAZY
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that about 90 billion pounds of edible food go to waste each year.
Food Recovery Network thinks so too, and they’ve gotten way past the goggle-eyed disbelief stage. They’re digging in to solve the problem — digging in to leftovers in university kitchens around the country to reclaim food that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of each day.
Since its beginnings at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011, FRN has grown to a network of 155 campus chapters in thirty-nine states that have recovered almost a million pounds of food to date.
The group became a formal non-profit in 2013 with help from the Sodexo Foundation (yes, college cafeteria survivors alums, that Sodexo). In 2014, FRN collected more food than in the previous three years combined. By May 2016, they plan to be on 180 campuses and have recovered 1.2 million pounds of food.
“America is ready to change,” said FRN Executive Director Regina Northouse. After many years in the social justice arena, Northouse is relatively new to FRN, but she’s already noticed a difference in how people respond to her current mission. “My network has always been happy to help with my work, but the amount of care and support they have shown for FRN has been amazing. People want to volunteer, they want to learn more.”
ONE PERSON AT A TIME, ONE POUND AT A TIME
It happens one student and one pound at a time. Every evening, volunteers arrive at campus kitchens across the U.S. to recover food in a careful process that involves checking food temperature for safety, weighing and repacking the food, and delivering it to area organizations in need. DC-area chapters partner with the Christian Life Center in Riverdale, Family Crisis Center in Brentwood and the Central Union Mission, in DC.
At UMD College Park, collections happen most nights at 9:45, whereas another campus in the network has to pick up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturdays. These times are anathema to most college students, but FRN students are committed, and together they make a difference.
The time, it seems, is right for food justice.
So what’s been stopping us before? Sara Gassman, FRN’s Director of Member Support and Communications, cites misinformation as one of the most common barriers to food recovery.
“Not everyone is aware of the Good Samaritan Act, which protects donors acting in good faith,” she said. The policy, enacted in 1996, protects food donors from liability when they have followed all measures to keep food donations safe from collection through delivery. “Another difficulty is that there are no national guidelines for what’s acceptable to be recovered. We have to research a lot of health codes.”
But for Gassman, who describes her involvement with FRN as “eye-opening,” all the work pouring through arcane local regulations is worth it when she gets to engage with students at regional and national conferences.
“It’s a chance to meet and see that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re really facilitating change in the way people view food surplus.”
This transformation isn’t limited to university campuses. FRN’s Food Recovery Certification program provides recognition for companies that donate food, and information for companies that want to start. There are currently sixty-five FRN Food Recovery Certified companies in this one-of-a-kind program.
December 1 is Giving Tuesday. For Food Recovery Network, it will be the culmination of a month-long campaign: #FRNDZY. It’s a friendly competition among national chapters to raise $20,000 and develop students’ fundraising skills. Prizes for winning chapters include trips for students to attend FRN’s National Food Recovery Dialogue in April 2016. And every dollar donated during this campaign will be matched by Newman’s Own Foundation.
Working with student organizations was her primary focus when she arrived, but since learning the food waste facts, Gassman said has started looking more closely at her own consumption. “Now when I’m at the store, I think twice before I buy something. ‘Do I really need it; will I have time to cook it?’ This work has definitely influenced my personal behavior.”
It’s also changed her friends’ behavior. Now, she said, when they’re out to dinner and they finish their plates, they proudly announce, “Look, no food waste.”
She’s happy to get people thinking about their relationship with food. “All it takes is one person.”