UNC Dining finds a way to Waste Not

Every night, pounds of chef-prepared, untouched food was thrown away outside UNC’s two dining halls, deemed unsafe by government regulators to serve the next day but still perfectly edible by most anyone’s standards.

Just a few minutes away, local charities were breaking the bank to fill the growing number of empty bellies at their doors, often running out before everyone got a hot meal. Especially this time of year, around the holidays.

Thanks to the UNC Waste Not program, this doesn’t happen anymore. The volunteer program organizes students and faculty to collect unused cafeteria food and distribute it to the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities’ Guadalupe Center seven nights a week, year-round.

“If the dining halls are open, we’re there,” said Waste Not volunteer coordinator Lynette Kerrigan. “It only takes 30 minutes, and really provides something beneficial to other people.”

The program was started in 2010 by UNC School of Teacher Education professor Susan Thompson, who could no longer stand seeing so many of the elementary students she worked with go hungry.

“As educators we really felt the need,” she said. “For some of these children, the only meal they have is at school. And they might have siblings at home that aren’t of school age yet that they’re worried about.”

After discovering the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act — which allows places like UNC to donate food without the risk of being held liable for any contamination — and coordinating with UNC executive chef Aaron Essig, the food rescue mission began.

The program started with Thompson, a colleague and both their husbands packaging and delivering the leftover food every night themselves. By the end of that summer, word was out and volunteers were pouring in.

Thompson now organizes volunteer groups of students, faculty and community members for both food pick-up and delivery. Each group takes on one night a week, with back-up groups for reinforcement when need be. They show up at the dining halls each evening just before 7 p.m., donning plastic gloves and yielding giant Tupperware containers. The volunteers work together to systematically dismantle and package the pans of lasagna, gallons of soup, trays of tater tots and anything else that never made it to the buffet lines.

The group leader then transports the goods over to the Salvation Army (Sunday through Wednesday) or the Guadalupe Center (Thursday through Saturday), where the student’s leftovers become tomorrow’s lunch menu.

“This way, the food goes to people who really need it,” said Hal Brown, the director of UNC dining services. “It might be the only meal they’ll eat that day. It minimizes waste and helps folks in the community.”

The program has approximately 22 different group leaders and 75 volunteers, Thompson said. On the weekends, they also pick up donated bakery items from the local King Soopers.

Gina Smith, the volunteer kettle coordinator with Greeley’s Salvation Army, said the UNC donations feed 80 to 100 people a hot lunch daily, making up nearly 90 percent of the meals they distribute. Food that, before Waste Not, was filling landfills.

The group receives affirmation of what it does on a regular basis. Thompson said that a graduate student Waste Not volunteer was recently tutoring a child who said that he had a great night because he “got a really good meal at the Salvation Army.” It was the same meal the volunteer had packed up at the dining hall the evening prior.

“The student was so happy because she knew the food had come from us,” Thompson said. “It’s really a rewarding partnership for everyone involved.”

Greg Spaid, the meal coordinator at the Guadalupe Center, said that the center uses the donated food to feed residents ranging from newborns to 60 year olds nutrients that they wouldn’t be getting elsewhere.

“They’ve got quality food and quality cooks, no doubt,” he said. “We get a lot beef, chicken and fish. It really helps us save on our food budget.”

CSU has its own food-recovery system. While leftover food that was put out on the buffet is composted, the university’s dining services donates safe, unused food every few days to the Larimer County Food Bank, said Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications for housing and dining services. The effort resulted in 62,671 pounds of donated food last year, not including what was collected at food drives.

Once received, the food bank freezes and delivers the meals to area agencies it supports. These “food link partners” include places like Respite Care, which depend on the food bank’s suppliers for daily meals.

“We want to be good community partners,” Miyamoto said. “Our students are very conscientious about leftover food, and we want to help the students with their own goals. We have a very sustainable operation.”

Amy Pezzani, the executive director of the food bank, said that it’s important for any large cafeteria operation like CSU to donate because of its high-waste potential, but recognizes that it’s not easy to ensure the food is kept up to code throughout the process.

“It is quite an effort for schools to get the food to the point where we can pick it up,” she said. “The fact that CSU does, that’s fantastic.”

At semester’s end, both schools donate unused bulk food to the Larimer and Weld County food banks.

Waste Not is currently in need of more food storage containers. If you’d like to donate, contact Lynette Kerrigan at 970-351-2908.

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