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Carleton students engage with the community through Food Recovery Network initiative

When it comes to the environment, there are some solutions that just make sense—and usually, they stem from problems that don’t. Food waste and food insecurity are two such issues that walk hand in hand. The USDA estimates that 30-40 percent of the US food supply, or about 133 billion pounds of food, gets wasted every year. And it’s not just food that gets wasted.

According to the World Resources Institute, if food waste were its own country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the United States. Meanwhile, food insecurity continues worldwide; in the United States alone, over 10 percent (14.3 million) of households were food insecure at some point during 2018. For these families, worrying about the environmental impact of their food or even its nutritional value is a luxury that they cannot afford. Often, they can barely afford food at all.

In 2011, four students at the University of Maryland, College Park wondered if they could use these issues to fix each other. They noticed that their dining halls were throwing out food at the end of every meal, so they began saving this food from the trash can and instead bringing it to organizations that feed people. Thus, Food Recovery Network (FRN) was born.

A couple of years later, Carleton students began looking for ways to do the same thing. In 2013, Shira Kaufman ’16 ran a dining hall waste audit; in a recent email, she shared her findings that “plenty of good food was going to waste every day while many people in Northfield and Faribault did not know where their next meal was coming from.”

But in an October 2013 Carletonian article, Kaufman was quoted saying that starting a Carleton chapter of FRN would involve “lots of really tricky logistics that would rely heavily on students to be there right after meals.” Kaufman said that the program works at “mostly big schools in cities where they can quickly get the food to points where it can be distributed,” and would be much harder in a place like Northfield. According to the article, Kaufman decided not to partner with FRN and instead was looking into other organizations that reduce food waste.

Flash forward to 2020. Northfield now hosts not one but two FRN chapters, one at Carleton and one at St. Olaf. Carleton’s chapter is one of the oldest and most robust of FRN’s 230 chapters across the country. It was the first in Minnesota at its founding in January 2014—by Kaufman herself.

So how did FRN take off at Carleton in the end? It turns out that students were willing to show up and put in the work, after all. When Kaufman began recovering food six years ago, she said, “I had a lot of my friends roped in to help with recoveries and transporting the food at the very beginning, but by the end of the year we had a pretty large network of volunteers.”

Kaufman and her team also coordinated with community partners and with Bon Appétit manager Katie McKenna to get the program rolling. McKenna agreed that students were the driving force behind the organization: “I helped and coordinated,” she said, “but Kaufman did all the heavy lifting!” And Kaufman’s hard work has been mutually beneficial for Bon Appétit. FRN reports the amount of food they recover to the food service and if Bon Appétit sees that they are over-producing, they respond by reducing the amount of food they prepare in the first place.

And the extra food that is still inevitably left over at the end of the night? “Beside the obvious benefit of reducing waste,” McKenna said, “it is a great feeling to know that the food that would have been put into the compost bin is going to feed people who need it.”

Today, Carleton’s FRN chapter is run by eight Program Directors (PDs) and, in the 2019 fall trimester, 73 active volunteers, half of whom participated five or more times over the course of the ten-week term. Some volunteers recover from the Language and Dining Center (LDC) and Burton dining halls six nights a week, and others are campus drivers who transport and distribute the healthy, locally-sourced meals to six community partners: the Faribault Adult Education Center, the Greenvale Community School, the Area Learning Center (a non-traditional youth education program), the Key Youth Center, St. Dominic’s Church for its Spanish Mass, and of course, Northfield’s Food Shelf.

Recently, Carleton’s FRN has also started recovering at Cub Foods and Target twice a week, taking leftover and unsellable foods to the Food Shelf. At these stores alone, volunteers recover about 2,500 pounds of food per week. PD Brendon Lin ’20 is excited about expanding in this area, because, he said, “that’s I think a pretty good indicator that we don’t feel like there’s too much more we can be doing on campus. I’d like to see us have more growth there, with working directly in the community.”

According to Erica Zweifel, interim Associate Director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), FRN is certainly growing in the right direction. In February 2019, because of the influx of food from Target and Cub recovery, the Food Shelf needed more space, so the CCCE and the Sustainability Office secured a $54,000 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to buy them a new walk-in cooler.

“I am told by our community partners that they could not maintain their level of impact in the community without the work of FRN Carleton students. I am tremendously proud of their accomplishments and the impact of their engagement,” says Zweifel.

And contrary to Kaufman’s initial worries about FRN, students seem to enjoy the time they put into the club. Justin Washington ’20, who has been volunteering as a food distributor since his freshman year, said, “I always look forward to my food recovery nights. Everyone is engaged and interesting, and the low social-pressure environment means it’s easy to quickly become pals. Besides the fun people in the network, the places I’ve delivered always greet me with smiling and grateful faces.”

Plus, with so many people involved, it doesn’t have to be a big commitment to fight food waste and food insecurity and climate change. As Lin puts it, “it’s simple and straightforward and has legitimate impact, and someone just has to do it.”

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