How UMD’s Food Recovery Network is trying to tackle both food waste and food insecurity

It’s about 9:30 pm on a Tuesday night, and volunteers are transferring dozens of aluminum trays of excess dining food from their cars to the Christian Life Center (CLC). That night’s selection? Burgers, pasta, biscuits and other food cooked by dining hall kitchens but never served.

“There’s not a food shortage problem in our nation, there’s a food distribution problem,” said Ben Slye, chief pastor at the CLC.

The volunteers are from the University of Maryland’s Food Recovery Network (FRN) chapter, a student organization that aims to reduce wasted food on campus.

“That’s what FRN and our program really are working hard at: is trying to recover all food that would be thrown away and get it into the hands of hungry people,” he added.

According to FRN chapter president Julianna Greenberg, finding a way to handle the excess food was the primary reason why a few UMD students started chapter back in 2011.

“The dining halls at first thought they didn’t have waste, and they pressed them, and they found out there was. There was lots of waste,” she said. Today, the Food Recovery Network website says that it has 230 chapters across 44 states and Washington, D.C.

The university’s chapter does most of its recoveries at the North, South and 251 diners. “We take the food from their containers to put into our containers, and we drive it to the shelter. It’s pretty straightforward,” Greenberg explained.

That process is volunteer driven, with student recovery leaders helping oversee the work in addition to weighing and marking the filled containers, said Abigail Guise, one of the leaders for 251.

The amount of food recovered each night varies, she said. On that particular night just over 130 pounds of food was recovered from 251, but Guise remembers seeing “as much as 200 pounds.”

Between the diners that FRN recovers from, about 500-600 pounds of food are saved every night, Greenberg said. “It’s about a pound of food a meal, so that’s another 500-600 meals of food that were not eaten, that were just going to be thrown away if it wasn’t for us,” she added.

For Boxi Chen, another recovery leader for that diner, being able to see this impact has made volunteering with FRN  a good use of his time.

“It’s only an hour and a half, sometimes it’s only an hour and we’re recovering hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food” he explained.

By the end of the spring 2019 semester, the chapter is on track to recover approximately 260,000 pounds since its founding, Greenberg said.

Justin Bodycomb, a freshman mechanical engineering major, says that he’s surprised by how much food ends up in the hands of FRN each night. “The amount of food from one dining hall is staggering, and we have three dining halls on campus,” he said.

“It’s nice that we have a program that we collect all this food and make sure it doesn’t go to waste,” he added.

After all the food is packed and logged, the leaders then drive it up to the Christian Life Center, which is about a 10 minute trip by car. Greenberg says DOTS had at one point supplied busses, but they’ve had to rely on volunteer vehicles since the department’s budget cuts last year.

The CLC temporarily stores the food in industrial size freezers just outside its building to later distribute to local food assistance programs. Among the entities they distribute to are soup kitchens, day centers, Meals on Wheels College Park and senior homes.

“We’re basically taking all the surplus food and giving it to people who need it the most,” said Chen, one of the other recovery leaders for 251.

For Slye, this method of cooperation has worked well. “We have the mechanism to get the food out, they have the mechanism to get the food together, so it’s just a win-win,” he said.

Additionally,  seeing the impact they’ve been able to make has been a special experience.

“We brought a bunch of this FRN food to a seniors’ home and the ladies that were there said it was like we just gave them a million dollars because this food meant so much to them,” Slye said.

The students involved have also echoed that sentiment.

“Just the overall purpose of the organization really means a lot to me because I feel like we take having meals for granted often,” Guise said.

Overall, Greenberg said that she’s happy to have seen the expansion of FRN during her time, but that she hopes to eventually be able to bring their recovery efforts to Route 1. “Just expanding our network to encompass as much of the College Park area as we can to reduce waste in every way that we can would be my big goal for our program.”