Written by Helen Labun
The University of Vermont may not be a traditional restaurant, but it moves a lot of food. Their dining units serve an average of 12,812 meals each day—enough to feed dinner to every resident of Montpelier with plenty left over for everyone to grab dessert and a midnight snack. It’s a volume that can make a difference in our food systems and Sodexo, the company managing UVM dining services, has been thinking a lot about the impact of those meals. UVM is a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, they spent 22% of their food dollars on local products in 2016. They’ve developed sustainable purchasing guidelines for some ingredients that aren’t available locally, like seafood and coffee. They’ve also taken a hard look at food waste - not only how to reduce waste, but also how to best use the inevitable extras generated by campus dining. One recent component of using that extra is in donations to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. It’s a partnership that increases access to nutritious foods while also reducing the environmental impact of our food system—both goals in the Farm to Plate food system plan. Prepared food recovery can be difficult, but it’s an important tool among the strategies UVM uses to sustainably manage their food.
Managing Food Waste
Eliminating food waste means keeping the organic material out of landfills. There are many ways to do so and Vermont’s Universal Recycling law includes a hierarchy of preferred uses (adapted from the EPA). The best option is to reduce the amount of waste generated. UVM currently uses a LeanPath system to track food that goes unused, record why it ended up that way, and then apply this data to eliminating sources of waste. They’ve seen an almost 30% reduction in waste in locations where this system is implemented. One of the last (but still good) choices on the hierarchy is composting, and UVM has campus-wide composting. In between are other diversion options, starting with getting that extra food to people who want it - which is where the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf comes in.
It’s important to note that here we’re talking primarily about fresh prepared food. This food is different from fresh ingredients, such as what a gleaning program might collect, or shelf-stable foods, such as what might be collected in a can drive. These perishable, prepared foods have their own set of food safety protocols for donations, as outlined in this overview from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
Finding the Right Partner
About two years ago, Brad Docheff, the Operations Manager at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf (CEFS), approached UVM to set up a regular schedule for bringing in donations of prepared food. The two organizations had worked together before. Previously, CEFS had received large donations from campus ahead of school vacations, when UVM knew they wouldn’t be able to use the extra in their kitchens and retail locations. It’s the school equivalent of a wedding being called off and the caterer arriving with a whole lot of prepared food to give away - and, in fact, cancelled events have made up a large percentage of prepared food donations.
CEFS has the capacity to handle the sudden influx of food from these types of windfall donations. Nonetheless, having a regular schedule of reliable donations is better. Brad was looking at the almost 13,000 meals being produced each day and knew there must be extra food generated throughout the school year. Even if UVM had the most efficient kitchens in Vermont, the volume of meals meant that a very low percentage of waste still translated into a lot of food, enough to merit starting a new partnership.
The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf was the ideal partner to pick up that extra food. They have high traffic through their site and high product turnover. Something donated in the morning could be consumed by their clients that same afternoon. They also have a range of programs that can use different forms of the food. They can put foods sized for a family in their distribution area, and when they get a “critical mass” of one thing they can serve it in their soup kitchen. They have a kitchen for processing donations, too. Brad also notes that CEFS serves a large homeless population, for whom it’s important to have food that doesn’t require preparation.
Setting Up the Program
Brad approached UVM chefs about a partnership and quickly found champions. Liability issues came up frequently at the early meetings (for more on these, Harvard Law provides a short summary of liability protections). Soon, though, they had a system up and running. Workers in UVM’s kitchens got training on what food is eligible for donation. In dining halls, extra food that was not served started being portioned into family-sized containers and frozen for CEFS pick up. The retail locations offer a slightly different food mix, with more items that have a long shelf life, like a granola bar, as well as pre-packaged individual servings, like a fruit cup. The CEFS team now makes a pick up run to UVM three times a week, following three different routes. They keep the meals frozen and bring them straight to the freezers at their facility - if for any reason the food thaws, it goes to compost (luckily, that’s only happened once).
According to Brad the partnership has run smoothly “. . . [UVM] is a very green university, and we’re beneficiaries of that,” he says, “. . . we divert food that would be wasted and feed people good food that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.” So far, they have rescued over 17,400 pounds of food from this partnership.
UVM is not alone in finding ways to recover prepared foods from college dining. They are one of many campuses verified by the national Food Recovery Network. The Food Recovery Network (FRN) began in 2011 with students at the University of Maryland collecting 30,000 meals from their dining halls for donation to DC area nonprofits. In 2013, the Sodexo Foundation provided funding for the ad hoc project to become a staffed nonprofit. Today, they’ve grown to 210 chapters in 44 states. Their network has recovered 1.4 million pounds of food so far. You can find out more at their website. In Vermont, Green Mountain College currently has a student FRN chapter and UVM may start a student chapter soon.
Resources for More Information:
Visit the Food Donation pages at Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Thank you to Emily Portman, the UVM Sustainability Manager, for providing information for this article.