Young food waste activists confront issues at summit

“Our generation was not so good at teeing up prosperity for the next generation. We assumed someone else would come in and take care of it later. Young brothers and sisters, that’s you.”

Those were the words of Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen and a speaker at the Food Waste and Hunger Summit at Northwestern University on April 5-6.

Curtin, whose organization uses recycled food, culinary training and other measures to combat hunger, told his audience that in order to achieve change they must work together.

The Campus Kitchens Project and the Food Recovery Network co-hosted the summit, and students from university branches of those organizations descended upon Evanston for two days of speakers, panels, discussions and other exercises.

A major focal point of discussion was on food recovery, a process whereby good leftover food is re-purposed or redistributed to people in need. Often this food includes products that are past their use-by dates or have faulty labels.

Nicole Civita talks with a participant at the Food Waste and Hunger Summit on April 6.

Nicole Civita talks with a participant at the Food Waste and Hunger Summit on April 6.

Nicole Civita, a law professor in the agricultural and food law program at the University of Arkansas, presented on the complex topic of food recovery laws.

“The law is there to facilitate the work you want to do,” she told students.

Students said they encountered problems in convincing campus dining halls and local restaurants they could legally donate their food.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, Civita said, created a “national floor” for food recovery policies. It exempts people engaged in food recovery from “negligently caused harm.”

Civita said the sell-by, use-by and expiration dates on food packages are not determinative as to whether food can be donated.

The goal of the presentation was to provide students with the correct legal information to use when approaching different facilities about starting to participate in food recovery.

Civita said there was food being wasted in other avenues, such as when food is confiscated from international travelers passing through customs and encouraged students to take action to correct the problem.

“Where is food being wasted and you can’t figure out how to recover it?” she asked.

One breakout session students participated in over the weekend focused on campus advocacy for food recovery. During a discussion called “Party for a Purpose,” students shared ideas from their schools and discussed better ways to engage their campus communities.

Plans included hunger banquets, hunger games, speakers, cooking classes, pledges and giveaways.

Students watch as Claire Cummings simulates a conversation with a campus dining services official.

Students watch as Claire Cummings simulates a conversation with a campus dining services official.

An additional forum, “Navigating the Campus Bureaucracy,” was led by Ben Simon, founder of the Food Recovery Network. He had students map out all of the campus parties that might be involved in a food recovery program and discussed the Do’s and Don’t’s of working with school administrators.

Part of what makes a campus food recovery system complex, Simon said, is that “different departments are silos,” and therefore communication sometimes is an obstacle for students to overcome.

During the session, students also pitched their food recovery program to Claire Cummings, a waste specialist for Bon Appétit, a food service management company. Cummings played the role of a campus dining services director and pressed students for answers to questions they would be asked during an actual meeting.

By joining students and activists from across the country to discuss best practices in combating hunger and food waste, students left the summit with a stronger network and new tools to boost their food recovery efforts back home.

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