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Food Waste, Recovery & Insecurity: The Role of RI Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities are untapped resources for fighting food insecurity. So said Becky Spritz of Roger Williams University on Friday, March 31 at a panel on food waste, food recovery, and food insecurity in Rhode Island, a state where 12% of households are food insecure, many of whom are working, but still suffering from poverty. This panel addressed the unique challenges and opportunities for colleges and universities to intervene in these issues.

Sponsored by the Providence Public Library, the Roger Williams University Honors Program, and the RWU chapter of the Food Recovery Network, the panel was moderated by Sue Anderbois, RI Director of Food Strategy and a Council Member for the RI Food Policy Council, and featured comments from:

From their insightful comments and those from audience participants, two main themes stood out to me:

While nearly universally embraced as “the right thing to do,” food recovery and food donation to food-insecure eaters requires navigating a series of tensions. 

A significant tension lies in that food recovery efforts must abide by food safety standards, requirements, rules, and codes. In some cases, these safeguards are onerous and worth revising or streamlining. In many cases, however, food safety remains an important consideration and one that often requires infrastructure that does not yet exist in some states and areas— like apps that immediately track available recovered food and route it to areas of need, as well as a team of refrigerated trucks with food safety certified workers to transport the food.

In addition, even food businesses that morally want to donate excess goods to feed the hungry must balance this imperative with their own fiscal responsibility and efficiency. A supermarket or restaurant donating lots of food each day, week, or month runs the risk of being perceived as, or actually being, irresponsible in their inventory planning, prep, and management.

Lastly, food business efficiency, food waste, food donations, and the needs of food insecure populations can represent competing goals and needs. Although food businesses increasing efficiency and reducing food waste are positive actions, they also reduce food donations, while food bank needs remain the same or, given recent economic conditions, even increase. If our current federal food programs and charitable feeding efforts remain constant, where will the food needed to feed the hungry come from if/when institutions meet their food waste reduction goals? Donald Ferrish of RWU proposed that in the college environment, administrators could transparently engage students in efforts to reduce food waste, pledging to donate funds gained from increased efficiency to the food bank so to contribute to the ongoing needs of food insecure populations.

As institutions and populations, colleges and universities pose specific challenges and opportunities for fighting food waste and food insecurity and promoting food recovery. 

Andrew Schiff commented that colleges have excess resources perfect for fighting food waste and food insecurity with student energy, knowledge, and empathy. Indeed, interest, activism, and volunteering among a select group of students often fuel food recovery efforts in university settings. Even if supported by engaged students, however, food recovery must constantly cope with the inevitable turnover of the student population.

Panel members also acknowledged the challenge of engaging the broader student body in sustainability and food waste reduction efforts. Steven Mello, director of dining services at URI, further elucidated the cultural nature of these challenges, arguing that students today arrive at college more demanding consumers and eaters, having grown up surrounded by food media. From dining services, they no longer seek a substitute for “mom’s home cooking,” but rather a buffet of options that rival restaurant fare, which increases food waste.

A final challenge lies in that while institutions of higher ed are poised to aid the food insecure in the surrounding community, colleges and universities are increasingly identifying, acknowledging, and addressing issues of student food insecurity. Much like how the United States balances food aid efforts internationally and domestically, universities must play a role in addressing these issues within their immediate campus population and their surrounding city and state community.

– – – – – – – – –

In the end, panelists emphasized that fighting food waste, ending food insecurity, and promoting food recovery require collaboration, coalition building, and culture change, which is slow and at times challenging, but urgent and worthwhile work.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this recap. You remind me of my own college days, the vast amounts of food offered up in the food courts and cafeteria each day, and how much of it we dumped when we didn’t like it. What, if any next steps did the panel suggest to achieve that collaboration, coalition building and culture change they identified as necessary to reducing food waste, ending food insecurity and promoting food recovery?

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    • Emily Contois says

      Thank you for your comment—and what a good question! From what I understand, this was a first convening event with the panel in the morning and breakout sessions in the afternoon, which I wasn’t able to attend, but I believe the idea was for those sessions to lay the groundwork for future collaboration: from simple things like identifying a food recovery point person at every institution and creating a directory for future collaboration to institutions with more developed programs stepping up to help others get started, sharing resources, experiences, ideas for scaling up, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh that’s wonderful. I was surprised that they would stop there. Glad to hear they went to solutions stage. Appreciated your summary of the panel so much.

        Liked by 1 person

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