The Food Recovery Network: How a Student-Led Organization Reduces Food Waste at Brown University
On Earth Day the walls of Brown University’s dining hall—affectionately known as the Ratty— were lined with white bins, while volunteer students stood guard instructing diners to compost.
“Everything gets composted tonight!” they exclaimed, pointing at the bins. I joined the lines and followed suit, helping the Food Recovery Network decrease food waste for the night. According to the National Resources Defense Council, 40% of edible food in the United States goes to waste. Reducing that number by even 15% would help feed 25 million people. Students at Brown are aware of this staggering number and, through so much more than compost, are tackling food waste head-on. Food “waste” can be saved to help feed those who are food insecure, while at the same time diverting unwanted, yet edible, food from Rhode Island’s limited-capacity landfill.
The Food Recovery Network (FRN) is a student organization that aims to reduce food waste on campus and at nearby businesses by donating uneaten food to local soup kitchens. To get a better picture of what FRN does outside of Earth Day, I recently sat down with Megan Kelly, FRN’s publicity chair.
Tell me a bit about the Food Recovery Network, and how it’s structured at Brown.
The Food Recovery Network at Brown is actually the second chapter in the United States to open under the FRN national network, with 186 chapters across the country.
We collect the food that restaurants and dining establishments would throw out because it is past its “best by” date—even though it’s still perfectly edible—and we deliver that collected food to shelters in the Providence area.
Most people don’t know that, according to the national arm of the FRN, if we were able to divert all of the food waste in the United States, nobody in in our country would be food insecure.
The FRN began with the Blue Room, a small cafe on campus, and we still collect their leftover baked goods such as bagels, breads and pretzels, seven days a week. Off campus, we collect pastry donations from Blue State Coffee on Thayer Street five days a week. Once a week we go to Flatbread Pizza on Thayer Street and collect the leftover ingredients from their weekly pizza special.
As of now, most of the food we collect is in the form of pastries and other carbs-—food that works if a person is not getting any calories, but unfortunately it’s not the best in overall calories. We are working on expanding and reaching out to the Providence community to find more partners. We partner with We Share Hope, another larger food rescue organization in Rhode Island. They help to pick up collected food and deliver it to shelters or food pantries. Ultimately, we are trying to reallocate the resources that are out there and get it to the people who really need it.
We covered We Share Hope in our most recent issue of Edible Rhody. Can you tell me a bit about your partnership with them?
We actually started our partnership with We Share Hope (WSH) when we started the FRN six years ago. They’re just really great people. They’re really excited about saving discarded food and helping people, similar to the FRN. And they’re always willing to go the extra mile for us. For example, sometimes we have more food than we can deliver in a single trip. The folks at WSH are always willing to make extra trips or change their schedules so they can pick up at Brown. They’re also really good at keeping an eye out on the shelters, making sure the food is going to where it’s needed most, so we can focus more on finding the food that’s being wasted and recovering it.
So you pick up and deliver seven days a week? How do you manage it?
We have a five-person leadership team, eight supervisors and 53 volunteers. Each supervisor is in charge of an area where we collect food.
As publicity chair, I write all of the emails, newsletters and handle the logistics, making sure everyone goes to their scheduled shifts, that the poundage is correct and other tasks. We have a Brown University Dining Services (BUDS) liaison, so we communicate with people at BUDS to see where we can collect food and, most importantly, how we can collect more food. We also have somebody on the leadership team who keeps up with all of the logistics. One person on the leadership team is the liaison with WSH. That person handles shelter outreach as well. We also have a volunteer on the leadership team who is reaching out to more businesses and restaurants on College Hill, on Wickenden Street and in the greater Providence area, identifying those which are willing to donate food.
Can you describe the volunteer process, and a more specific breakdown of the day-to-day of FRN?
We need a lot of manpower. We have 53 shifts per week to collect, weigh and store the food and then drive it to certain shelters. In the morning we pick up from the carts and coffees in the Sciences Library. The latest collection shift is at 11 pm, but we collect throughout the day.
We usually deliver food from 11 am to noontime. Scheduling for deliveries is pretty flexible because there is always someone at the shelter to accept the donations. We deliver to the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, Crossroads Rhode Island and WSH (unless WSH comes to us to collect).
Do you have any specific organizations or businesses in Providence with which you are trying to partner?
Right now we’re trying to publicize through grocery stores. In Rhode Island, by law, grocery stores have to donate the unspoiled food they will no longer sell. We figured that since mandatory donation already exists, grocery stores would be more receptive to collaborating with FRN and publicizing our efforts.
We aren’t certain of the impact advertising in grocery stores would have, but our goal is to ultimately enlighten more people in the Providence community beyond Brown. Like I said, most of the food we collect is carb-based, and not many fresh fruits and vegetables. We hope that by advertising in grocery stores, and expanding our reach, it will enable us to gather more fresh food.
Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that FRN has accomplished since you began volunteering?
We’ve recovered approximately 60,000 pounds of food (or more) since we started, which is a really big number. So we’re really, really proud of that.
Last semester we held an apple gleaning event at Pippin Orchard in Rhode Island to collect apples after harvest. It was probably our most successful event, in terms of student outreach. We recovered 600 pounds of apples!
We really like seeing people be more cognisant of their food choices. We planned an event for Earth Week at Brown this year in partnership with “Scrap,” the composting group on campus. Historically during Earth Week at Brown there’s an Earth Day dinner at the Ratty with all local and sustainable food. Because the food is so good, it’s really easy to take more than you actually end up eating. “Scrap” will be composting the food waste, but not until after we make everyone weigh their individual food waste. We were the bad guys that day, making everyone aware of what amount of food they’ve wasted, food that could have possibly been diverted to a person who is hungry.
When I joined FRN my freshman year, I joined because I was interested in food waste and sustainability. My experience over time has helped me realize that something as simple as managing food waste can have a real impact on people in the local community.
A big thanks to Megan for taking the time to answer questions for Edible Rhody. If your business, office or family is inspired by the Food Recovery Network’s work at Brown University, drop them a line at email@example.com to learn about donating or volunteering. And be sure to visit FoodRecoveryNetwork.org to read more about the work being done through Brown’s FRN chapter and other chapters around the country.