Vassar Food Rescue(VFR) describes itself as a group of students dedicated to eliminating food insecurity by reducing food waste. Starting last year under the name “Just Food,” the org renamed themselves after shifting from social justice issues to a more practical goal of food rescue and donation.
VFR’s mission statement reads: “Cut down food waste at Vassar by increasing awareness and transporting leftover excess food from college and org events, to shelters, soup kitchens and other places in need; and by increasing awareness of the problem.” Considering that 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes to waste and a quarter of landfills are devoted to food waste, VFR’s efforts focus solely on solving the problems of food waste and food insecurity in the United States. Locally, VFR is committed to helping feed the 26 percent of people in Poughkeepsie who are food insecure, meaning that they lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
Last week, VFR carried out a project called “Weigh the Waste” to raise awareness of food waste and the organization’s efforts, which are still largely unknown to the student population. Catherine Belleza ’18, a member of the organization, says, “Weigh the Waste [was designed]…to bring food security awareness, especially right before Thanksgiving.” VFR members asked Vassar students who ate dinner at the ACDC on Nov. 22 to dump their food scraps into a large barrel before placing their dirty plates onto the conveyor belt. When the last diner deposited their un- eaten food, VFR weighed the contents of the barrel with the help of Deece staff and a large, commercial scale. They found that students threw out 174 pounds of uneaten food that night, after just one dinner.
Fortunately, Vassar established a compost disposal system with Green- way Environmental Services, a for-profit company that specializes in sustainable waste management and large-scale composting, between 2000 and 2002 that is still in place. Greenway picks up food waste from the Deece, the Retreat and Ferry House five times a week and composts it using biological processes. Greenway’s founder Shabazz Jackson is enthusiastic about the partnership and the precedent it sets for other local colleges. Jackson says, “Vassar, Marist, New Paltz, Sienna, they all have the same system. Exactly the same. And that system was developed at Vassar.” Thus, what “Weigh the Waste” attempted to impart to Vassar students is that Vassar’s problem isn’t the proper disposal of food waste, it’s that the student population is producing large amounts waste that could be used to feed the needy.
Next week, VFR is continuing its campaign to garner awareness among Vassar students with a food drive. Huy Nguyen ’17, another VFR member, explains, “It’s the end of the semester and people will start going home, so there’s a lot of leftover, throwaway food that we want to collect and donate to Dutchess Outreach. We’re planning to place boxes in the TAs, THs and the College Center starting next week.” This food drive works to raise awareness of waste-creating habits while promoting VFR’s primary purpose: food rescue and donation. The organization’s modus operandi is to collect uneaten food from events on and off campus like the weekly farmers’ market, the Vassar Asian Students’ Alliance’s (ASA) Night Market, weddings and occasionally from the Deece. They store this food in two medium-sized refrigerators like those found in the Retreat, according to VFR member and founder of the Hudson Valley chapter of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine Siennah Yang ’18. After the food is stored, VFR volunteers drive it out to organizations like the Salvation Army, Dutchess Outreach, a food pantry and soup kitchen in downtown Poughkeepsie that served 368 families in August according to Associate Director Tara Whalen, and Hudson River Housing homeless shelters.
Belleza says the organization is rarely able to rescue food that is slated to be thrown away, even if they know about it. These difficulties are part of the reason VFR is trying to raise awareness among students.
As a pre-org, VFR is allotted less funding than official orgs. They currently make up for this gap in budget by sourcing materials like boxes, pans and trays from off-campus organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, but they still need all the help they can get. Nguyen delineates what the organization needs to keep up with demand, and how it would use additional funding from the college, saying, “We would like to have bigger fridges, more room, bigger facilities for the food. We also need carts to collect and transport food when we have big events. And also we’d like to have a driver who can take the food to Dutchess Outreach because we don’t always have volunteers to take our food, so we’d like to use funding to pay somebody to get the food where it needs to go.”
VFR also hopes to use additional resources to continue its education campaign, as many Vassar students are simply unaware of the intense need for food in Poughkeepise. Yang blames the “Vassar Bubble” for this disconnect. He elaborates, “The Vassar-Poughkeepsie divide makes [the problem] worse too, because you don’t really see how much hunger and poverty there is in Poughkeepsie.” Nguyen agreed, and suggests potential solutions involving education reform. “Incorporating [food insecurity education] into the freshmen orientation would be great…If we get more funding then we can organize more field trips in order to break the Vassar Bubble and see the scale of food insecurity in Poughkeepsie.”
In the fall of 2017 Vassar is switching food service providers from Aramark to Bon Appétit. According to an April 5 school-wide email from Dean of the College Chris Roellke, this transition will include a change in the meal plan format from an all-you-can-eat system with a set number of swipes to an all-access plan, in which a blanket fee will cover unregulated access to the Deece and other campus dining locations. This new plan is controversial because it may fail to accommodate students who rarely use the meal plan or abstain from campus dining entirely, but there is a silver lining. The current all-you-can-eat system encourages food waste because students feel the need to fully “use” each swipe, and therefore often serve themselves more than they can eat. An all access plan may eliminate some of this waste.
VFR members are undecided about whether they agree with this switch, but they are excited by the provider’s attempt to reduce food waste in campus dining. Regardless, the efforts put forth by the College and students are likely to push waste management to the forefront of the school’s priorities going forward.