Ellen Yee (left) and Jennifer Abraham-White (right)
Writer: Andrea Love
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
It seems implausible that a country could struggle simultaneously with food insecurity and a surplus of food waste. Yet about 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted, while 1 in 8 citizens struggle with hunger. The Food Recovery Network, a national movement to fight food waste and end hunger through engaging college students, is working to change that.
Started by four students in 2011 at the University of Maryland, the Food Recovery Network now has 230 campus chapters across the U.S., including Drake, Iowa State and Graceland universities in Iowa.
“In the U.S., food waste has increased about 50% per capita since 1974,” says Ellen Yee, professor of law and director of international programs at Drake. She adds that major sources of waste include farms, stores, restaurants and homes—“all the way through the food chain.”
Seven years ago, Yee founded Next Course at Drake, a student-led food recovery program that gathers extra food from campus dining halls and catering services to distribute to local nonprofit hunger relief organizations.
Next Course has donated more than 31,000 pounds of recovered food to partner organizations in Des Moines, according to Drake senior Ashly Frazier, an environmental sciences major and service learning ambassador. Frazier helps coordinate the volunteers who recover food and deliver it to nonprofit partners, such as Central Iowa Shelter & Services and YMCA Supportive Housing.
When the pandemic closed down regular campus dining hall services and paused food recovery efforts, Frazier says the organization focused on installing new “Little Free Pantries” in Drake neighborhoods. Little Free Pantries are stand-alone wood structures stocked with donated nonperishable food items for food-insecure individuals to take whenever they need it. Next Course partnered with more than 16 businesses in 2020 to gather food donations and fill 12 pantries they installed in nearby neighborhoods and on campus.
Through its food recovery efforts, Next Course also strives to keep food waste out of landfills. “You’d think organic waste would be good,” Yee says. “But piles upon piles of organic waste in landfills lead to food decomposing without oxygen. This creates methane, and methane is 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. One-third of the earth’s methane is from food waste in landfills. It’s nuts.”
The Food Recovery Network chapter at Graceland University in Lamoni serves residents in Decatur County, which has a median household income of less than $45,000.
“The magnitude of food waste that goes on at a college campus is mindboggling,” says Jennifer Abraham-White, sustainability coordinator at Graceland. “There are people within a stone’s throw with empty refrigerators.”
Before the pandemic, Graceland hosted biweekly dinners for low-income students, staff and the community using food recovered from the campus’s dining hall. Recovered food was also provided to residents of a local assisted living facility, and any that was no longer fit for human consumption was donated to a local pig farmer or composted.
“We’ve diverted a lot from going into a landfill,” says Abraham-White. During the pandemic, food recovery was processed differently since all campus dining food was prepackaged for take-away, she says, but the program still diverted nearly 4,000 pounds from the landfill last school year. In some ways, the take-away packaging made moving recovered food easier and more predictable, but Abraham-White believes one of the major benefits students received from community meals was the casual interactions with community members.
“We co-opted events to highlight other projects, like a sustainable table event, and would share about other available resources within the community,” she says. “Or we’d use the meals as an opportunity for ad-hoc conversations about community issues across all populations.”
Abraham-White adds that she hopes that coming out of the pandemic, the food recovery program can create a hybrid program of pre-pandemic community meals and the packaging done during the 2020 school year that made moving the food more convenient.
Emma Cleland-Leighton, a recent Graceland University graduate, says her participation in Graceland’s food recovery program helped her to realize that some governmental regulations will need to change for effective food waste reduction across the country. This fall, she’ll start law school to focus on environmental advocacy, which she plans to use to create change.
“Food waste policy changes in the U.S. have so much potential,” Cleland-Leighton says. “We need to find a way to make it a safer process.”
Iowa Stops Hunger is a Business Publications Corporation initiative to raise awareness of hunger in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.