FRN 2017Earlier this month I attended the Food Recovery Network’s (FRN) annual conference in Washington, D.C.  The National Food Recovery Dialogue – or NFRD 2017 – brought together a host of leaders from the food system to discuss the important topic of food recovery and redistribution.  Speakers came from organizations such as Farmworker Justice, Harlem Grown, Drexel University, USEPA, NRDC, Bon Appetit, LeanPath, and more.  But most importantly, the event brought together a large group of highly energetic, passionate college students committed to doing one great thing: reducing food waste by capturing perfectly edible excess food from college dining halls and redistributing it to local non-profit agencies addressing food insecurity.

The idea is simple.  The impact is local and tangible.  The results are powerful.

The Food Recovery Network story is impressive.  FRN notes that it is the largest student run movement against food waste and hunger in America.  The organization got its start in 2011 at the University of Maryland, when Ben Simon and three fellow students noted significant amounts of excess food from the dining hall going into the trash.  The team recognized the opportunity in capturing such excess healthy food and putting it to its ultimate use – feeding people – and by the end of the year had provided 30,000 meals to hunger-relief agencies in the Washington area.

With the power of the concept, rapid growth followed.  A second chapter followed at Brown University in 2012, and the groups merged with two California programs that year.  In 2013, Sodexo provided funding for full-time staff and the ability to formally organize as a non-profit.  And four years later, FRN has grown to 230 chapters across 44 states in the US, recovering more than two million pounds of food that would otherwise have gone to waste.  The group partners with more than 300 hunger-fighting agencies across the country (food banks, pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, etc.) to redistribute excess food, with 3,000 students involved in the process.  The benefits to those partner organizations are significant:  FRN reports that 81% of partner agencies note that the food from FRN increases the variety that they can provide to their constituents, and 71% indicate that the food resources from FRN free up funds that can be allocated elsewhere.

FRN has a worthy goal of establishing a chapter in all 50 states by the end of 2017, intending “to make higher education the first sector in which food recovery is standard practice.” I like the phrasing.  That is the mindset we need in our school system – from colleges to kindergarten – create a culture in which we normalize food waste reduction, and de-normalize food waste.

The FRN students were inspiring.  For starters, many traveled hundreds of miles to attend the event.  Rather than spending a weekend of, well, doing what college students do on weekends, they gave up that free time to spend a weekend talking about food recovery issues at their colleges and Universities.  They realize the importance of the mission.  They “get” the senseless nature of food waste, and they are committed to doing something about it.  They displayed great energy – and that’s something we want to capture to launch our national food waste reduction effort.

As discussed with FRN’s Executive Director Regina Northouse, my objective was to bring a food waste prevention perspective to this recovery-focused event, essentially linking the two themes in systemic fashion and discussing actionable change through the lens of LeanPath.  In the process, I discussed the optimal resource benefits of source reduction – the top tier of the food waste reduction hierarchy – and the importance of shifting the food waste conversation up the hierarchy to prevention for the intermediate and long term, while still seeking to maximize the benefit of food recovery efforts in the immediate term.  And while I had a slight concern that the students might fear that a prevention focus might disrupt their campus recovery efforts, it was unwarranted.  They “got” the importance of prevention and recognized the need to curb our current cycles of overproduction.

In my view it is important that we seek to impart a systems-focus on this generation, as they represent our future decision-makers – and we want them to be change-makers for food waste reduction and a sustainable food system.  Many of them will not only soon be coming into organizational positions with access to resources and people, but they will also be pivotal in helping lead US efforts to achieve the 50% reduction goal by 2030.  So it’s important that they understand the importance of the top level of the FW reduction hierarchy – source reduction – as well as the benefits of recovery.  That need extends downward through our educational system as well – particularly to elementary and middle schools.

A highlight of the event was the Kitchen Throwdown, in which three-person teams engaged in culinary competition to produce one sweet and one savory dish, with dishes being judged on taste, appearance, creativity, and teamwork.  I love these types of tangible events, which so clearly drive home the importance of food recovery.  Jonathan Deutsch, James Beard Fellow and head of Drexel University’s Food Lab, supervised the competition and expertly summed it up this way:

“There’s a lot of talk in the food world about the need to reduce wasted food and numerous policy ideas, technological solutions, and proposed interventions to accomplish that goal.  And the scope is staggering.  That’s all important but it’s equally important to have some experience and opportunity to work with real products.  How does typically wasted food look, feel and smell?  How does its preparation differ?  How do you balance food safety concerns with an imperative to keep nutrition in people and out of the compost bin or – worse – landfill?  And how can you use culinary creativity to not only recover surplus food, but elevate it into a gastronomic, marketing, sustainability, and financial success?  Those were the questions we tried to address through the hands-on opportunity the Kitchen Throwdown provided.”

To sum, NFRD represented a weekend of great passion, energy, inspiration and creativity on food recovery, with an added prevention focus, too.