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Drake University’s Next Course aims to reduce food waste

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After years of seeing abnormally large buffets served at networking events, Drake Law professor Ellen Yee’s curiosity was piqued. “I would always wonder to myself, what happens with all this stuff?” she said.

The answer: it’s most probably thrown into the trash.

According to ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food waste, 35 percent of the food in America is wasted. That is equivalent to more than $400 billion worth of food that is tossed into the trash or left to rot in landfills in America alone. Globally, more than  $1 trillion is wasted, according to the United Nations.

“A lot of the food waste that happens is either plate wastes, so you put more on your plate than you could actually eat and people, instead of composting or doing something different, are just tossing it into the garbage,” Erin Price, Food Recovery Network program manager, said. 

Price added that most food waste comes from households, at about 30 million tonnes every year. Consumer-facing businesses experience up to 26 million tonnes and farm foods produce about 17 million annually.

“Maybe you don’t meal plan effectively, or you intended to make like three meals that week and then something happened at work,” Price said. “And so, you know, your whole plan derails and you end up with more in your fridge, it goes bad faster than you can actually use it.” 

It is with this initiative in mind that Yee founded the Next Course food recovery program at Drake University with the support of the campus food service, Sodexo. “I just started investigating, and that’s when I started to find out that there was a lot of waste, that it was necessary to happen,” Yee said. 

The program aims to educate the campus community on the importance of reducing food waste, and recruits student volunteers weekly to recover surplus food from the Hubbell Dining Hall.

Since its start at the 2014 Drake Relays, Next Course has rescued and donated more than 33,000 pounds of leftover food to their local nonprofit partners: Central Iowa Shelter & Services, Children and Family Urban Movement, Hawthorn Hill, Hope Ministries, YMCA Supportive Housing and Harbor of Hope.

That fall, Drake University had also become a chapter of the nationwide nonprofit food recovery program, Food Recovery Network. They are one of over 200 college campuses to do so.

Food Recovery Network aims to combat the issue of hunger and food insecurity in the United States. College campuses across 46 states have become chapters of the organization, getting involved in rescuing and donating foods to shelters and nonprofits.

“We want to make sure that the program has longevity. So [we make] sure that we are helping those students to transition their leadership to younger students that can kind of take over and make sure that the program stays on campus long term,” Price said. “We [also] offer support just to any food business or event planner that wants to incorporate food recovery into their day-to-day operations.”

Three times a week, Drake student volunteers will collect all surplus foods from a cooler through the loading bay parking lot by the Stalnaker Residence Hall. It is weighed in a cart, then transferred to the student’s car or public transport for delivery.

Students will rescue foods that are still whole and in good condition, that were simply not used in the cooking process or consumed by people who eat in the Hubbell Dining Hall.

“For most of the sites, food dated within five days is an acceptable range. That’s for all partner agencies except Hawthorn Hill,” said Andrew Kennard, Next Course Food Recovery coordinator.  “For Hawthorn Hill, [we] only bring food that is dated within two days.”

Next Course also integrates their program into Drake’s curriculum to educate students further. In the spring of 2015,  the program was the subject of a case study for two group projects in the PR143: Planning and Management course.

In the fall of 2016, the program assisted Simpson University in starting up their own food recovery program which then kicked off in the spring of 2017.

“Our milestones are spreading the message to other places like Simpson,” Yee said. “For me, other really significant things are having students that have been exposed to this as an area of concern, that have decided that it fits their interests in life and devote some of their professional life post-Drake to it.”

Drake University’s food recovery efforts contribute greatly to the Food Recovery Network. The nationwide organization has recovered and donated over 5 million pounds of food, which equals to more than 4.1 million meals to individuals and families who are food insecure. According to Feeding America, approximately 42 million people are insecure.

“Community disinvestment is a huge factor in that. So especially in Washington, DC, when I think about some of these communities that people have to travel more than two miles to access a grocery store,” Price said. “Meanwhile, in another neighborhood, somebody can walk four blocks in any direction and be at a grocery store.” 

Due to COVID-19, Next Course has had to hold back on their activities for the past two years in order to protect the health and safety of all parties involved. That is why the program is currently focusing on increasing student involvement and education on food insecurity, coming up with new ideas that will help counter the issue.

Kennard stated that the organization is looking at holding a food drive at the end of the year. “That’s going to be a good goal for us, because we will be able to focus on rebuilding the organization, getting people involved with food recoveries while having a larger goal in mind.”

Kennard is The Times-Delphic’s News Editor. He was not the editor responsible for this article.

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