These students don't let campus food go to waste

While one in six goes hungry, colleges throw out 22 million pounds of food annually

College campuses throw out millions of pounds of food each year, but a growing number of nonprofits and student groups are working to reduce waste and feed the hungry, Linda Poon writes for NPR's "The Salt" blog.

A national problem

According to the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste, college campuses throw out of 22 million pounds of uneaten food annually. To put it another way, advocacy group Recycling Works says that equals 142 pounds of wasted food each year—per student.

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Ben Simon, FRN's 25-year-old founder and a recent University of Maryland (UMD) graduate, says he started the organization because it seemed like "this surplus food from college campuses was just getting wasted."

Engaging students

FRN recruits students to salvage wasted food from campus cafeterias and deliver it to local groups that provide free meals for the needy. In three years, the program has grown from a handful of students at UMD to over 100 chapters nationwide. FRN says students have salvaged 640,000 pounds of food so far.

FRN isn't the first college-based group to tackle the challenge of feeding the hungry. For instance, the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) has been doing something similar since 1987. However, experts say FRN's success is part of a broader trend among both students and administrators to be more mindful of waste and sustainability on campus.

"A lot of schools have done things like introduce trayless dining," says Wynn Calder, director of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. Calder says research has shown simply doing away with trays and making plates smaller can reduce food waste by one-quarter. Other tactics include having fewer food choices, and placing unhealthy items toward the back of the cafeterias so students take smaller portions.

Some programs go further, combining service learning with sustainability. At University of California, Davis, the student-led Project Compost collects 2,000 pounds of compostable material a week which is given to community gardens. Calder says student-run projects are one of the best ways to build awareness around sustainability. "If you become aware of the importance of not wasting food at the age of 15, 18 or 20, it's a heck of a lot better than figuring that out when you're 50," he says.

College food waste is only one part of a national problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40% of all food is thrown out before it is even served, even though one in six Americans suffers from hunger (Poon, "The Salt," NPR, 2/27).

The takeaway: To fight the problem of hunger and promote sustainability, administrators and students are thinking creatively about how to harness campus food waste for a good cause.

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