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Food Recovery Network: a student-driven grassroots movement promoting food recovery, a simple, sustainable solution to food waste and hunger



The U.S. wastes an excessive 40 percent of the food it produces. In fact, every single day enough food is sent to landfills to fill up the Rose Bowl football stadium twice. Food waste costs Americans $165 billion every year, accounts for 25 percent of freshwater use, and constitutes 23 percent of methane emissions—a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. At the same time, one in six Americans does not know where their next meal is coming from. This includes one in five American children. Studies show that when people lack access to consistent, adequate nutrition, it impairs not only their physical and mental health but also their potential to succeed both in the moment and later in life.

In 2011, University of Maryland students noticed this food waste and hunger paradox in their campus community: Dining halls were wasting nutritious food, while community members were going hungry. The students formed FRN to address these problems through a student-driven mission: recovering surplus food from their campus and donating it to local nonprofits. FRN addresses the issues of food waste and hunger by capitalizing on the need for meaningful student leadership and service opportunities. By leveraging both surplus food and eager student volunteers, FRN fights food waste and hunger and empowers students as social and environmental leaders. Since its founding, FRN has scaled to 192 collegiate chapters in 43 states, engaging more than 3100 students and recovering more than 1.3 million pounds of food.

FRN’s programs change not only the trajectory of would-be-wasted food but also the conversation about American food systems. FRN aims to continue scaling its replicable model to all 50 states and expand its impact beyond college campuses while turning dialogue about food recovery into action. FRN envisions a nation where food recovery is the norm, not the exception, and is on track to make higher education the first sector in which that vision is the reality.

Category of the action

Reducing emissions from waste management

What actions do you propose?

Food Recovery Network believes that food recovery—the process of donating surplus food rather than sending it to landfills—is a simple, effective, and sustainable solution to broader environmental and social challenges. To promote the physical action of food recovery, Food Recovery Network (FRN) implements a variety of programs through grassroots-style social action.

First, at its core, FRN unites students on college campuses to fight food waste and hunger by recovering surplus food from their campus communities and donating it to those in need. This process provides direct, immediate impact by significantly reducing not only food waste and its dire consequences on the environment, but also food insecurity and its harmful effects on individuals and society. By empowering student action — through chapters at 192 colleges and universities in 43 states — FRN is activating and supporting the next generation of leaders who will continue to work toward a more sustainable and just society.

Second, through the Food Recovery Certified program, FRN recognizes and rewards businesses that donate their surplus food instead of sending it to landfills. This program not only promotes food recovery in the for-profit community but also incentivizes it by providing positive PR. Ultimately, FRN partners come to realize the scale of their food waste, and oftentimes can start using source-reduction techniques to protect not only their bottom line but also the planet. By working with food businesses, FRN is transforming the way Americans view and handle surplus food.

Third, FRN launched the National Food Recovery Dialogue (NFRD), an annual conference that connects, educates and inspires student, nonprofit, business and policy leaders across the social and environmental justice landscapes to continue implementing practical solutions for transforming the U.S. food system. The first NFRD in April 2016 drew more than 400 attendees. By connecting students, businesses, and nonprofits, FRN is building stronger, more inclusive communities that can work together to use their resources in the most effective and sustainable manner.

Lastly, FRN recognizes the need for policy reform at all levels of government in order to create a more sustainable U.S. food system. For that reason, FRN launched its annual Lobby Day, which convenes FRN students and staff on Capitol Hill to advocate for improved national food policy and elevate the food recovery movement into the national policy arena. FRN held its first annual Lobby Day in April 2016, immediately following the inaugural NFRD, and assembled more than 100 participants. These students and FRN staff met with congressional staff from 22 states to educate policymakers about the food waste and food insecurity and press for policy changes that promote food recovery on a national level.

Through this work — which targets multiple sectors (education, government, nonprofit, business) at multiple levels (individual, community, regional, national) — FRN creates the framework for necessary long-term change in the way Americans relate to food and their environment. Creating this food recovery movement locally and nationally is an essential part of mitigating climate change globally.

Who will take these actions?

It is in connecting the following diverse stakeholders and linking existing resources that FRN’s simple, replicable model generates such success.

FRN National, the network’s headquarters in College Park, MD, ensures the cohesiveness of the network, fosters collaboration between stakeholders, and grows the movement to new campuses and beyond the collegiate setting.

FRN student leaders collect surplus food from their communities and redirect it to nearby hunger-fighting nonprofits and their clients. These 3100 students continually go above and beyond recoveries to be more involved in their communities, and carry that dedication beyond college, to their places of work and residence. Formally or informally, FRN students continually educate others about food waste and social and environmental justice.

Government also has a role in FRN’s work, by introducing, improving, implementing and enforcing policies to address food waste, climate change, and the environment in general. FRN advocated for such policies—like Rep. Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) Food Recovery Act and Rep. Jerry McNerney’s (D-CA) Food Waste Accountability Act—during Lobby Day and will continue to do so. Government must also continue pushing food recovery to the foreground, as it did through the USDA and EPA’s introduction of the nation’s first-ever food waste reduction goal.

Food businesses must think critically about their business models to reduce their waste. FRN currently has more than 340 food business partners, and continues to work to change the way food businesses view and handle food by providing food recovery services from university communities and by providing recognition to businesses that recover their surplus food.

Nonprofit partners receive recovered food donations from FRN chapters and distribute it to their clients, enabling nonprofits to dedicate more resources toward their own respective missions. Currently, FRN has more than 260 chapter-level nonprofit partners.

Where will these actions be taken?

Food Recovery Network focuses its efforts to reduce food waste in the United States. FRN’s 192 chapters span 43 states across the country. Although national in scope and mission, FRN prioritizes each chapter’s local impact through their work on the ground to recover food from their surrounding communities each day. Within the next year, FRN hopes to reach colleges and universities in all 50 states of America. 

Ultimately, this resource-redirection process centers on building communities and connecting stakeholders through a common goal, and this community-centric model gives FRN the potential to extend its reach further, beyond higher education and into other areas, such as K-12 schools, corporate cafeterias, hospitals and more. Already, FRN has inspired a county-wide food recovery program in Montgomery County, Maryland, and FRN staff have spoken with officials from cities across the country about the potential for city-wide impact.

What are other key benefits?

First, food is America’s largest waste stream, and every day, FRN chapters divert food from landfills. Second, more than 260 hunger-fighting nonprofit partners receive high-quality, nutritious food donations from FRN chapters. It was estimated that FRN donations save nonprofit partners around $2 million a year. Students are a third beneficiary. With FRN, college students have the opportunity to build a high-impact program on their campus, and through mentorship by an FRN staff member, students gain invaluable leadership skills. Ninety percent of students stated that FRN has helped them grow as a leader. Lastly, FRN benefits food businesses. FRN chapters recover food from more than 340 food businesses, which consist of campus eateries, collegiate sports catering, and community restaurants. By donating their surplus food, businesses receive positive PR and reduce costs through decreased waste-hauling fees, tax benefits, and source-reduction over time.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

According to the FAO, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases—after China and the U.S. Every year, 52 million tons of food are sent to the landfill in the U.S. alone, and an additional 10 million tons are left discarded or unharvested on farms (ReFED).

Globally, 1/3 of all food is wasted, according to the World Resources Institute. If we were to halve the percentage of food sent to landfills, we could reduce methane gas emissions 7.5 percent.

ReFED’s food waste report analyzed the top 27 solutions to reducing food waste, discovering that “Donation Transportation” has a diversion potential of 110K tons—a reduction in GHG emissions by 407K tons annually. Following this ratio, the 1.3 million pounds of food FRN has already diverted from the landfill has reduced GHG emissions by 2.4K tons. FRN aims to reach 2.7 million pounds of food recovered by 2019, reducing GHG emissions by nearly 5K tons—an additional 2.6 tons in the next 3 years.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Food Recovery Network’s costs average about $1 for every meal donated that would otherwise be wasted. These costs include the following: supplies needed for students to recover the surplus food (such as gloves, hairnets, aluminum pans or reusable containers, and transportation costs); staff to run the national office; and funding for national and regional conferences. 

Because FRN values building student leaders, FRN gives its chapters a great deal of autonomy when it comes to the logistics of the recovery process, as long as they meet FRN’s quality standards. For this reason, costs (volunteer time, energy expended transporting food) can vary from chapter to chapter, so it’s helpful to look at case studies of chapters. Take the University of Maryland chapter, for example. Every night of the week, 5-7 student volunteers will dedicate 45 minutes to an hour of their time to package up surplus food from campus dining halls and deliver it to nearby hunger-fighting agencies. The chapter usually recovers 200-300 pounds of prepared surplus food from the dining halls. While the University of Maryland chapter uses a car to deliver its recovered food, many FRN chapters whose hunger-fighting partners are nearer to their campus will bike or walk the food from the dining hall. In any case, the value of FRN’s work lies not only in its reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from food that would end up in landfills, but also in its ensuring that people have access to the nourishing food they need. Overall, FRN’s model efficiently redirects existing resources (eager student volunteers and surplus food) to fill resource gaps (hungry community members), a model in which the minimal costs are outweighed by the community value generated by FRN’s work.

Time line

In the short term, FRN will continue scaling to colleges and universities across America, reaching 350 chapters by May 2019. FRN has proven expertise in food recovery and is exploring potential programming in sectors outside of higher education with the short-term goal of choosing one additional sector in which to implement food recovery practices. Both of these phases will support behavior change in students and food businesses.

In the next 15-50 years (or in the medium term), FRN hopes to expand its work and expertise — potentially with programming for K-12 schools, consulting for food businesses and restaurants, and city-wide and county-wide food recovery systems. FRN’s student network will engage businesses holistically to address how they participate in the food system, helping them become waste-free and more sustainable in their purchasing and management of food.

FRN’s vision for the long term is that food recovery isn’t thought of as “recovery” — just food “donation.” When we no longer think of food surplus as wastable, FRN will a normalized part of the food system, helping businesses responsibly manage the inevitable surplus that’s generated from food distribution. Through expansive food recovery efforts, it will be convenient (and therefore the norm) for food businesses to have food donation programs.

Related proposals

The proposal by Cornucopia Group is related to Food Recovery Network’s proposal because the focus is on utilizing surplus food in an attempt to reduce food waste. The Cornucopia Group is seeking ways to utilize nutrient rich waste streams. While they are focused on pre-store food waste, FRN’s focus is on surplus prepared foods from food businesses.