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Food Recovery Network plate of food with the words "It's All Good"
Food Recovery Network, founded 10 years ago, donates perfectly good but unserved food from campuses to local homeless shelters and kitchens.

Photos by John T. Consoli; illustrations by Valerie Morgan

Via Maryland Today / By Annie Dankelson

How Terps Cooked Up Food Recovery Network 10 Years Ago and Grew It Into a Nationwide Hunger- and Waste-Fighting Force

MAYBE IT’S THAT EXTRA TRAY of chicken fingers that just wasn’t sold before closing time. Or those hot dogs still warming behind the concession stand counter after the big game. Or who really thought the conference attendees would polish off all those sandwich platters?

Up to 40% of all food in the U.S. goes to waste, according to the Food and Drug Administration, about one pound per person per day, and exceeding 81.4 billion pounds in 2017.

A decade ago this fall, a small group of Terps took notice—and took action. Instead of letting perfectly good but unserved food at the University of Maryland hit the trash can, they rerouted it to those in need at local homeless shelters and kitchens.

The effort required careful coordination, late nights at the dining halls and a few spaghetti-sauce-stained car trunks, but the seemingly simple idea caught on: Food Recovery Network (FRN) has spread to 172 campuses in 46 states and D.C., with almost 5 million pounds of food diverted from dumpsters and more than 4 million meals donated.

As the nationwide nonprofit—arguably UMD’s greatest Do Good success—celebrates its 10th anniversary, the co-founders, supporters and partners who made it possible tell its story.

In 2008, Evan Ponchick ’12 was hosting his brother for a visit when they stopped for dinner at the Stamp Student Union’s Food Court.

Evan Ponchick illustration

FRN co-founder, now applied analytics manager at Genentech and FRN Board of Advisors member

We went and ordered some pizza, and then it was around closing time. Three pizzas were out. I inquired, like, “Hey, what happens to those? Do you bring them home?” They’re like, “No, we have to throw them away.”

He soon noticed that this wasn’t an isolated issue.

I played on the club Ultimate Frisbee team, and after practice, I would sprint up to the South Campus Dining Hall so I could get there before they closed down. One night, I see in the chicken finger display, there were, like, 25 of them. And they rolled the trash can over and were starting to throw them all out. And I was like, “No, don’t do that!”

He wanted to do something about it. In Spring 2010, he joined his brothers and sisters in Alpha Phi Omega (APO), a co-ed community service fraternity, serving at So Others Might Eat (SOME), a nonprofit that feeds those in need in D.C.

I said, “Wait a second. This is incredible. What if I was able to retrieve some of those chicken tenders from the dining hall and bring them over here and serve them here?”

He reached out to SOME, whose staff was happy to accept food on Friday nights to serve the next day for breakfast or lunch. He just needed permission from Dining Services.

Colleen Wright Riva illustration

Director of Dining Services and FRN Board of Advisors member

When he came to me, he was just so enthusiastic and so willing to do whatever it would take to solve the food waste problem. I also remember having to kind of give him—I hate to say this—kind of a dose of reality around the way the food system works.

Wright-Riva had tried a similar food recovery idea at Cornell University, where she’d previously worked.

When you’re feeding somebody in a shelter or in a church, you want enough for everybody. Some of my skepticism was, will we be able to recover enough food that students can actually find someone to take it? So that was kind of the obstacle I put in front of them: Go out there and find some organizations that will take this eclectic smorgasbord of food. Then I said, also, we can’t add the labor or the transportation cost to deliver this food, so we’ve got to have a mechanism that will pass muster in food safety rules.

Chicken fingers that read, in mustard, 172 campuses in 46 states + D.C.

With multiple meetings, SOME’s cooperation and APO members’ agreement to use their own cars, the first food recovery took place on Sept. 17, 2010, then each Friday that semester. The volunteers packed up pasta, breadsticks, veggies, meat—anything the dining halls couldn’t serve that day.

We met up as a group outside South Campus Dining Hall 15 minutes before closing. One (Dining Services) representative would come by, and they would go and grab the leftover food. We would be responsible for scooping it into the aluminum containers that we brought. We would stack them up, and once it was all loaded, we’d clean everything up, put everything away. And then we’d roll the cart with all the food over to the freight elevator, go down one floor to the loading dock, and then I would come over there with my car. We would drive in, throw on the little CD mix, go into SOME—they would be there waiting and ready. I’ll never forget the big smiles and their handshakes.

Around the same time, Ben Simon ’14 had started a separate community service club on campus, the Love Movement, and similarly noticed the food waste problem.

Ben Simon illustration

National FRN co-founder and founding executive director, co-founder and former CEO of Imperfect Foods

There was a time when my friends and I would actually eat off of the conveyer belts—it was in my grungier days when I was really broke as a college student, and it served two purposes of (feeding) myself and also preventing food waste. From there, we met with Colleen, and she had mentioned Evan’s thing, the APO food recovery and donation project that she had just, like a week or two before, given permission to start up in South Campus Dining Hall.

The Love Movement joined APO on recoveries in Spring 2011, allowing the effort to expand to multiple nights per week.

Mia Zavalij illustration

National FRN co-founder, former Love Movement member, now co-founder and food recovery consultant at Eatable

It was such a simple and effective process— just packaging everything up and then driving it 15, 20 minutes down the road and seeing that immediate impact.

Hot dog that reads in mustard, 4.1M total meals donated

That fall, as Ponchick focused as a senior on securing internships, Simon took the reins and established Food Recovery Network as a UMD club in September 2011.

There was a First Look Fair at the start of that 2011 school year, and all the students were sort of on one side of the tables, signing up for clubs. We actually went behind the tables so that we could have more direct, more intimate conversations with the leaders of all the different student groups.

That led to around a dozen clubs—including ROTC, religious organizations and activist group Community Roots—joining the cause, each taking different nights of the week to recover food on campus. After easing some concerns about liability by researching laws like the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects food donors who give to nonprofits, FRN soon spread to 251 North and the Diner, catered on-campus events, and football and basketball games.

Andrew Bresee illustration

National FRN co-founder, now Software engineer at Affirm Inc.

It felt almost like covert ops or like vigilantism or something like that, because as soon as the food gets off of its heating elements, it’s like the (clock) starts ticking, like how much time is left before you can actually donate it. So we were running through the halls and, you know, there are people leaving the game, and it was fun. It was fun and scrappy.

FRN learned to sync the timing and logistics at each recovery location that semester with the help of a recipient just over a mile from campus.

Ben Slye illustration

Pastor at Christian Life Center in Riverdale, Md., and CEO of Passion and Compassion Outreach Ministry

We talked about cars being “baptized,” because food would just come out of the trays onto (students’) cars. So we learned how to put plastic down. Then we had to learn at what temperature we need to refrigerate the food.

Cam Pascual illustration

National FRN co-founder, Eatable co-founder, now senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund

It was sometimes discouraging. Like we’d have people sign up for food recovery, and then not show up. Students, they just have so much going on that you can be kind of flaky, especially if you have a test coming up and you were like, “Oh, this sounds great. Let me sign up for it.” And then it’s 8 in the morning and you’re like, “I don’t actually want to do that.”

Whatever challenge that we came up with, we just faced, because we knew that this food was going to feed people that were hungry. Bringing this food in, I mean, it was like you were giving the (elderly) a million dollars when they would have a piece of meat, pasta, rice and vegetables. The reaction was incredible.

After growing within UMD’s campus early that Fall 2011 semester, FRN’s co-founders saw a chance to go bigger. Simon reached out to Ben Chesler, a friend at Brown University. Simon had invited him to Love Movement meetings while Chesler was interning in D.C. and mentioned the early food recovery effort.

Ben Chesler illustration

National FRN co-founder, co-founder of Imperfect, now associate director of entrepreneurship at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University

He said, “Hey, this Food Recovery Network has taken off. We’re recovering a lot of food. You had said you wanted to do something at Brown. Do you want to actually put your money where your mouth is?”

Pasta salad

Brown’s chapter followed a similar story to UMD’s, with confidence from its dining services overcoming some initial skepticism. That set the blueprint for further expansion, with Pomona College and the University of California, Berkeley soon joining.

We had this toolkit of materials, a packet of four or five PDFs that we would send to every new chapter as we were coaching them through starting. One of the materials was basically giving Colleen and other directors of dining services as references for Food Recovery Network to say, “Yes, we do this with students at our school. It works with us. We would 100% recommend you do it.”

I got calls from other directors at other schools just saying, “Is it working? Is it a pain in the neck, or are you actually seeing momentum?” And I was able to tell our story, and I think most of the directors that called me ended up having their school run with the program as well.

When FRN started recruiting additional campus chapters, it entered, among other pitch competitions, UMD’s first Do Good Challenge in Spring 2012.

Bob Grimm illustration

Levenson Family Chair in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, Do Good Institute director, professor of the practice and founding chair of FRN’s Board of Directors

(Philanthropists) Bruce and Karen Levenson’s nephew was working with the actor Kevin Bacon, so they asked if we wanted to do something with Kevin. Collectively, a bunch of students and us came up with the idea of the Do Good Challenge, where Kevin would do a video wearing a Fear the Turtle shirt and challenge students to do as much good as they could.

The competition invited student teams to pitch their social solutions to a panel of judges and an audience of more than 700 in what was described as “a cross between ‘Shark Tank’ and ‘American Idol.’” The winning idea would receive a $5,000 grand prize.

French fry and ketchup that reads, 7.4M pounds of CO2 emissions prevented

Andrew and I probably practiced our pitch a hundred different times. We had some humor in there. One of our goals was to “get Loh,” and we used a Lil Jon meme—this was in the early days of memes—and just the whole audience cracked up. (We had gotten President [Wallace] Loh to come along on recovery with us.)

They did a nice job of being inspiring, being entertaining and also painting a picture of what their great potential was in the future.

The prep paid off, and FRN was crowned Maryland’s first Do Good Challenge champion.

As soon as it was over and they gave us the award, the audience started to file out, but the press came up, and they were snapping photos of us. We jumped offstage, and it felt like a mob of press just asking us questions.

That really helped catapult Food Recovery Network into the main spotlight. That was really exciting, because it became a lot easier then to tell universities (about us), to have legitimacy.

After the challenge, FRN received free office space from the university’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Grimm joined as founding chair of its board of directors and was instrumental in securing early funders. The club incorporated into an official nonprofit in Fall 2012, and by the following spring had earned a $150,000 grant from the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation. Simon, Zavalij and Pascual became full-time FRN employees.

I had foundation friends who said, “Come back to me in a few years.” I was like, “That isn’t really helping us right now. If we can’t get going in the first few years, it won’t really be helpful if you’re interested in this three years from now.” Sodexo gets a lot of credit for taking a risk.

During the 2013-14 academic year, what ultimately became known as the Do Good Institute funded Evan Lutz ’14 in what’s now called the Impact Interns program with FRN. During his experience, he took the lead on a new waste-fighting idea: selling local farmers’ surplus produce to college students.

The initiative, called Recovered Food CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), took off, with Lutz and others packing onions, potatoes and apples—regardless of how they looked—into their cars and selling them outside the Stamp. After competing as a finalist in the 2014 Do Good Challenge, Lutz joined Simon to turn the startup into Hungry Harvest, a Baltimore-based company that has recovered 30 million pounds of produce in seven years.

Evan Lutz illustration

Co-founder and CEO of Hungry Harvest

I’m not a classroom learner. I am boots on the ground. I have to learn by experience. What Food Recovery Network did was, they gave me a framework as a backbone to really start a business within the business.

Simon eventually sold his stake to start a similar business on the West Coast with Chesler: Imperfect, which sells “quirky” or odd-shaped produce and other groceries through direct deliveries. Last year alone, it served 400,000 customers and saved over 50 million pounds of food.

Bowl of salad

It’s really crazy if you think about it, because Food Recovery Network has continued to grow, and then the ugly produce movement, which has now expanded into the world of grocery and this larger food recovery movement with Imperfect and Hungry Harvest—so much of this was started right at the University of Maryland.

I’m just thrilled that we were the founding school and that I was the director here at the time, that I was able to say yes. As a department, we’ve done things to launch the Campus Pantry, to partner with others for the Farmers Market and Terp Farm. So to see our own department really gravitate around trying to solve important issues around food just makes me happy.

As FRN continues to expand across the nation, the original co-founders have spread out as well. Some send the occasional text or meet for coffee. Others speak at each other’s weddings. And some have lost touch or pivoted to other careers. But they all look back fondly at Food Recovery Network’s growth and impact.

I feel like the best part, even when we were part of it, was it didn’t feel like it was our thing. It felt like it was a really grassroots movement.

You never know, one Friday night in your junior year of college could turn into a full-blown national nonprofit organization that’s going for 10 years strong.


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