By Victoria Cao
In the United States, 22 million pounds of food is wasted by college campuses annually, and those local communities often have high rates of food insecurity. In Providence County, Rhode Island, where Providence College, Johnson and Wales, Rhode Island School of Design, and Brown University are all home, 12.7% of households face food insecurity.
Why recover food from college campuses and why should we all get involved?
There are a wide variety of reasons. In my own personal experience, it gives:
- Students have an opportunity to give back to the community they lived in for four years.
As many universities are nonprofits, they do not pay taxes on their land or other operations. In Providence, where I attend college, tax-exempt land is 40% of the city. Although it benefits college students, who can enjoy more resources or less tuition costs, this comes at the expense of permanent residents who depend on the local government for public benefits. University students, including myself, only occupy the space for a few years, but often give nothing and take too much from the place we stay. Working with food recovery and community partners to increase access to healthy food is one way to leave a more positive impact, meet the community needs, and feel less like we are occupying space, and more like community members ourselves.
- Reduces waste, offsetting carbon emissions from food in landfills
Composting food is excellent, which many universities do, but using that food to feed more people is more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, if we can combat the problem of waste, we decrease the consumption of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and other harmful pollutants in the agricultural space.
- Allows for a conversation about food and health inequities
Food recovery is an excellent way to start a conversation about inequities in a very tangible way. In every community, there are individuals who do not have access to healthy, nutritious food, which many consider a basic human right. However, affluent college campuses are often removed from the community they occupy physically and therefore, are ignorant of food insecurity and other health inequities. In addition, access to food is often associated with other social determinants of health such as healthcare access, education, residential area, and food deserts.
- Offers a chance for students to innovate and think creatively
Food recovery on college campuses, fundamentally, is a logistical issue. There is no reason for universities to throw away thousands of pounds of food when one in nine Americans face food insecurity. We have enough, but the problem is connecting the system and closing the loop on food. Certainly, food is pervasive in every aspect of our lives as college students. It’s found at events, local grocery stores, dining halls, local restaurants, and more. There’s a space for food recovery at all these locations with a wide variety of problem-solving and innovative opportunities.
For example, the Food Recovery Network at Brown University has struggled with finding drivers for late-night donations after dining rooms close. In order to combat this problem, we’ve partnered with MEANS Database. We also hope to collect supplies outside of food (utensils, napkins, etc) when the dining halls do not have storage, as well as collecting more from catered and department events. Likewise, we want to use this opportunity to educate our campus about food insecurity. There’s an unbelievable amount of room for innovation and problem-solving.
Food rescue on college campuses can absolutely be done. It is protected by state legislation with the Rhode Island Food Donation Act and federally by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. In January 2023, the Food Donation Improvement Act was approved, expanding the Bill Emerson Act to include additional liability protections. If you’re a college student, consider starting a food recovery group whether through Food Recovery Network or a different group. Truly, you can make a difference in people’s lives as a teenager or twenty-year-old in college—just some food for thought.