Every Thursday evening since mid-September, a group of students and volunteers has packaged about 250 frozen meals weekly from leftover food in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s dining halls.
In an effort to reduce food insecurity and waste, the university pays four students — two directors, an assistant director and a student dietitian — to lead the Food Recovery Pre-Package Program and recruit about six volunteers a week to package free meals. Although she has experience working with similar student organizations, program director Monica Starck said this is the first time she has participated in paid food recovery work through the university.
The program is supported by a $27,000 grant from the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation. Food science lecturer Monica Theis, who led the process to secure the grant, said it aims not only to reduce food insecurity and waste, but also to “better develop transitional leadership” among the student body.
Student organizations and their community partners have found it difficult to constantly re-train students every time there is turnover due to graduating students or changes in schedules.
“When the student leaders graduate, they end up reinventing the wheel or starting all over because there hasn’t been a clear plan of leadership transition from one group of students to the next,” Theis said. “(Now,) they’re learning what it really takes to solve problems, but also what it takes to sustain the programs.”
The Food Recovery Pre-Package Program grew out of conversations at Housing, Dining and Culinary Services about how to expand the reach of food gleaning and recovery initiatives on campus, said university dietician Agnes Sherman.
After a student dietician surveys the food waste to decide what meals can be packaged, volunteers package and freeze the meals overnight before transporting them Friday mornings to The Crossing, a Christian student organization. The meals are available for free on an honor system basis and frequently run out, leaving zero waste, Starck said.
The program has recycled over 1,000 pounds of food, according to a university press release. Sherman said the program has helped dining services analyze post-service waste and internally improve operations.
Dining and culinary services director Peter Testory said in the release that efforts to limit waste have included “looking at our past data about usage, the weather, even football games. We track all these things so we order properly, produce properly, and limit overproduction.”
But, with the dual mission of reducing both food insecurity and food waste, the school often finds itself in a quandary. As it takes steps to reduce waste, such as a recent shift from buying pre-cut fruits to cutting whole fruits, they successfully produce fewer leftovers in dining halls — but also reduce potential frozen meal options for programs like Starck’s.
Of course, this is “a good problem to have, because that means we’re not wasting food to begin with,” Starck said. She works about 10 hours weekly, and much of her work includes marketing the program to students or devising policies for future directors, such as back-up plans for when volunteers cancel.
As the nutrition and dietetics major prepares to graduate in the spring, she hopes to successfully create an operations manual that is accessible and helpful for other universities to emulate. Other goals include training the assistant director to continue the program and purchasing a new freezer.
“It made us think about how we could make a program that runs itself,” Starck said. “It’s a lot of thinking through real-life situations, which I find so applicable. … This has shown me real-world experiences of what you have to do directing a program.”