At the end of the spring 2015 semester, a new pre-organization cropped up on campus simply called Just Food. It is one of several organizations at Vassar dedicated to improving campus sustainability and mindfulness in conjunction with the newly ordained Office of Sustainability. Just Food’s focus is, as its name suggests, the conscious consumption of food. Their work involves locating campus events that serve food and coordinating volunteers to collect the inevitable leftovers for donation.
Entirely run by volunteers on and off campus, the group reflects a collaboration between students, campus dining, and local restaurants and shelters to make sure leftover food goes to people who want and need it. One of the org’s founders Siennah Yang ’18 explained that she was inspired to ask for allies in this mission among Poughkeepsie vendors and Vassar students after she heard about the Food Recovery Network, a national organization specifically designed to help colleges and universities reduce food waste.
To find out more, Yang emailed activist and lecturer Tristram Stuart, who appeared in the documentary “Just Eat It,” which Just Food screened April 21. She then spent a month last summer asking local restaurants to donate and contacting churches, shelters and organizations like Dutchess Outreach Lunch Box, which allocates food and other necessities to people in the community. She and other dedicated volunteers developed a network alongside the organization Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, and Just Food was born. Fellow organizer and one of last year’s Sustainability Interns Saskia Comess ’17 summarized, “A project that I worked on all year was trying to start food recovery at Vassar and it was lot of meetings and things, so we didn’t actually do food recovery, but it was kind of setting the administrative groundwork for actually being able to do it. Then this year, when I met Nicole [Yaw ’18] and Siennah, they were really interested and super organized so we started the group together.”
Although they find Food Recovery Network’s resources useful and gained insights from a recent conference held by the organization, the leaders of Just Food decided to keep their group separate from the nationwide conglomerate for the moment. Yaw explained that their independence partly stemmed from a desire to keep their options open and possibly incorporate other environmental issues and initiatives surrounding food.
The logistical function of the group is quite impressive: the volunteers make 10 to 11 runs per week, saving food from receptions, house dinners and all kinds of campus events as well as from local vendors. Since 2015, they have rescued 20,049 pounds of food, according to Yang. Thanks to Campus Dining Director Maureen King, they were able to procure a refrigerator for the food to safely store it until a community volunteer can drive to Vassar and deliver the donations to a shelter. Yang noted, “I think most of the branches [at other schools] rescue mainly from dining services, but we do events which are a little more unique I think. It’s more coordination needed.” King commented, “There’s this widespread misconception that ACDC’s got tons of food left over, which isn’t the case … Not that we don’t have food left over, but we try to [use it]. So the biggest opportunity we realized would be catered events.”
But the group also coordinates donations from sources outside of Vassar’s dining services, including several vendors who come to Tasty Tuesday and the weekly farmer’s market, as well as several restaurants in the town.
Just Food has found further inspiration from the food recovery movement in the form of an internationally popular event called Feeding the 5,000, which was started by the food waste organization Feedback Global. The screening and talkback on April 21 featured a video of one such event that took place in Brussels in April of 2014. It showed swathes of people gathering in disbelief and delight around large pots of food, prepared and served by volunteers. The food is all sourced from local restaurants looking to dispose of leftovers. Just Food, in coordination with Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County, plans to host a Feeding the 5,000 event in Poughkeepsie next fall. Students who are interested to see what it’s all about can attend the one going on in Union Square in New York City on May 10.
Food recovery is especially crucial in communities like Poughkeepsie where 26 percent of citizens experience food insecurity (“Poughkeepsie Plenty: A Community Food Assessment,” Winter 2014). The contrast with the abundance of food at Vassar is stark, but Just Food sees it as an opportunity to share. Sustainability Intern and Just Food member Liza Ayres ’18 said, “I think at this point in our community here, the two most important things are education and engagement, so just having people be aware of the food insecurity that exists within Poughkeepsie, so close to our campus, and then somehow getting them engaged to do something about it.”
One of Just Food’s main goals is to impress the importance of looking at the societal implications of food distribution and waste. Comess remarked, “I think a lot of the time [food] is not thought of as any particular kind of issue, it’s just how you feed yourself, and college students are very involved in those kinds of issues, so I think that looking at food as another way to address those problems is very important.”
With the growth of the org, additional publicity and events like Feeding the 5,000, the group is optimistic that the food recovery movement will gain traction at Vassar. King speculated, “I think students like the concept, but I think sometimes it’s hard for them to make the connection.” Comess agreed, “It’s very easy to be a little bit mindless about what you eat, how much food you take, how you dispose of that and you can get away with it, if you don’t think about it, nothing particularly bad will probably happen to you, but it does have wider reaching effects. I think a lot of Vassar students do care about this, if they know and they stop to think about it, they would be happy to do it.”