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Street Outreach Tackles the Leftover Dilemma

As a first-year student, Yao Yao '08, like many of her classmates, had a part-time job in a Bryn Mawr dining hall. It was her first experience of preparing and serving meals to hundreds of people—and consequently her first introduction to the problem of leftovers writ large.

Most Americans routinely discard food without a second thought, but observing the same practice on an institutional scale was disturbing to Yao, a biology major from Albuquerque, N.M

"I hated to see so much food go to waste when I knew that there were people going hungry," Yao says, "but I didn't have a clear picture of what could be done about it."

Early this semester, Yao was having dinner in a dining hall with her friend Adaobi Kanu, a senior who had also worked for Dining Services. The problem of food waste still nagged at her.

"I said, 'It's so frustrating. I've been talking about this ever since I got here, and this is my last semester.' And Adaobi said, 'Let's stop talking and do something about it.'"

Just a few weeks later, Street Outreach was born. The student group, already numbering between 30 and 40 members, ferries leftovers to Philadelphia's Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission three times a week in vans borrowed from the College.

BMCDS Director Bernie Chung-Templeton is delighted with the project.

"There have been many student efforts at food recovery over the years," she says, "but this one seems to have the greatest potential for lasting success. They've approached this in a very thoughtful way."

One problem that has stymied past efforts: while the amount of edible waste Dining Services produces is enough to make workers cringe, it isn't enough to make it worth many shelters' while to send someone to the College to pick it up.

"We work very hard to limit the amount of waste we produce," says Chung-Templeton. "We spend a lot of time analyzing food-consumption patterns and how they are affected by all kinds of factors—people eat more lasagna, for example, when the weather is cold. Certain dishes are more popular than usual during exam week. "

While some leftovers can be incorporated into new dishes, others—again, Chung cites lasagna as an example—just aren't easily recyclable.

"Given our quality standards and our commitment to a highly varied menu, some waste is inevitable," Chung says. "But we all hate throwing food away, so this effort is really a win-win. Members of the Dining Services staff would much rather package food to send to people who need it than add more weight to the 150-pound trash cans that our utility workers have to hoist into the dumpster."

Yao and Kanu did quite a bit of looking to find the organization that could make the best use of the food they were offering.

"A lot of shelters have their own kitchen staff, so they're looking for grocery items or canned goods, but not prepared food," says Kanu. "Sunday Breakfast serves three meals a day to pretty much anyone who walks in the door, not just residents of the shelter. They were really excited about the project."

So were Bryn Mawr students.

"We asked for volunteers through the student-activities listserv," says Yao, "and we got about 40 responses to our first e-mail. A lot of students have worked for Dining Services, and most of them are aware of this problem."

Street Outreach's founders are eager to expand the group's membership.

"Students have to pass a test and be certified to drive the vans we're renting from the College," says Kanu. "We want to have a lot of certified drivers so that each volunteer will be committing only a limited amount of time to the project."

Yao notes that two passengers accompany the driver on each trip as a safety precaution. Ellie Esmond of the Civic Engagement Office has helped the group secure funding from the College to cover the cost of van rental and fuel, and Street Outreach gives each team a packet with maps, directions for several different routes to the shelter, and the names and phone numbers of contact people.

Dining Services staff members use their food-safety expertise to evaluate leftovers' suitability for transport, and BMCDS contributes ice to keep the food cool during transit.

Kanu and Yao have been pleased by the enthusiastic response from students and are optimistic about finding successors to carry the project on after they both graduate in May.

"People like seeing tangible results of what they're doing," says Kanu. "This is a really satisfying project."

 

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Posted 2/28/2008 by Claudia Ginanni