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Merrimack’s Food Recovery Network Addresses Food Waste and Scarcity

By Lillian Zagorites

It may feel ridiculous or even impossible for food scarcity and food waste to exist as simultaneous problems, yet both coexist in our community.

Food waste is a pressing problem in the United States. According to the USDA, food waste in America is estimated to make up 30 to 40% of the total food supply, though the USDA and EPA have joined in setting a goal to halve this total by 2030.

While the scope of this goal can be intimidating, student-led movements like the Food Recovery Network are taking this opportunity to fight back against food insecurity.

Vivian Villaman, Assistant Director of Community Outreach at Merrimack, is the faculty advisor for the Merrimack chapter of the FRN, and spoke on the role of the group to work with on-campus dining services to rescue usable food that may otherwise contribute to waste.

“Food Recovery Network is a national program seeking to recapture food waste, transform it, and deliver it to those in need, all while focusing on addressing the root causes of food insecurity. FRN focuses on recapturing food from campus dining halls, restaurants, grocery stores, or farmer’s markets to create meals for those in need,” said Mrs. Villanman

Food insecurity can be a pervasive yet often overlooked issue on college campuses in particular, but the FRN has reported recovering five million pounds of food from 180 campuses in 46 states since it was started by four University of Maryland students in 2011.

“At Merrimack, students have the opportunity to volunteer in a service-learning experience through Hands to Help and coursework in the School of Health Sciences. A total of two ServSafe certified interns and 25 Community Nutrition student volunteers recover perishable food that would otherwise go to waste at our dining hall,” Mrs. Villanman said.

However, student-led programs like the Food Recovery Network don’t just prevent food waste. They can also serve as an essential voice for the hungry and act to solve the problem of hunger in their communities by saving and redistributing otherwise wasted meals. 

The FRN at Merrimack recently observed Food Waste Awareness Week with their Paper Bag Project, which encouraged students, faculty, and staff on campus to write about their experiences with food insecurity on paper bags to be displayed in the dining hall. The effort aimed to raise awareness of food insecurity in our community.

“The town of North Andover is viewed as a wealthy area, but because of this facade, individuals do not realize the vast amount of hidden food insecurity that takes place in their community. The Paper Bag Project shed a light on these difficulties by helping to raise awareness and define what food insecurity truly means,” said Ali Parez, president of Merrimack’s Food Recovery Network Club.

The three-day project ended with over 80 completed bags by the Merrimack community, considered a massive success, made possible by the participation of 17 student leaders.

“I first heard about this organization back in my Community Nutrition class last fall, where I was a volunteer for many of the events that they held that semester. […] This experience on this project opened my eyes to be more aware of the food I waste as well as wanting to help fight hunger in my community,” said Carley Gable, a current intern for FRN involved with the project.

The anonymous responses, seen below, ranged from stories of personal experiences with food insecurity, to drawings, to suggestions to combat food insecurity and waste on college campuses:

“Everyone should be educated on food insecurity and situations that differ from their comfort zone in order to abolish all ignorance.”

“ Give students free meal swipes or include meal plans in the full school package.”

“As a kid, I thought it was normal to have egg & beans for dinner and the cabinets be empty.”

The bags themselves are no longer on display, and the Merrimack Food Recovery Network chapter feels hopeful that their presence in the dining hall for the last week of classes was able to shed some light on the issues of food waste and insecurity on campus.

The FRN plays a critical role in dining halls and food pantries on and near college campuses nationwide, and their presence helps students have a voice to rectify a significant injustice that food waste creates, all by getting meals into the hands of people in need. 

Currently, the FRN only works with students from the Community Nutrition course. However, students interested in getting involved can join the FRN club by contacting Alicys Perez, FRN club president, at perezal@merrimack.edu.

Students moving off-campus this week should also keep in mind the FRN’s current event, Move Out for Hunger, which aims to recover any non-perishable food items that students do not intend to be taking home. Donations will be collected from May 11th to 13th and donated to the Lawrence community fridge.