The Food Recovery Network: Hundreds of Student-Led College Chapters Fight Community Food Waste

Food Recovery Network Student Led College Chapters Fight Food Waste

In a Nutshell: When students at the University of Maryland realized campus food safety policies designed to protect them resulted in copious amounts of unsold surplus food, they set up a network to recover and repurpose the food. And then they extended their network nationwide. Today almost 200 student-led chapters of the Food Recovery Network (FRN) fight food waste and alleviate hunger in their communities. FRN also verifies food businesses and businesses with food to donate and advocates for equity and sustainability throughout the food system.

College fraternities and sororities are well-known for supporting various social causes on campus and in their communities. For all the good they do, these projects rarely go nationwide.

Yet that’s what transpired in 2010 when Evan Ponchick started a food recovery project for his service-oriented fraternity at the University of Maryland. Ponchick had gotten into the habit of running across campus to a favorite dining hall. But if he arrived even a minute after closing, well-meant safety policies mandated that dining hall employees discard food Ponchick said he would have been happy to purchase.

It’s the same everywhere because rules are rules. Food-service folks routinely toss good food as soon as it expires. Protocols around temperature and handling provide additional constraints. 

Graphic of Food Recovery Network logo

Ponchick and his friends learned that as much as 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste, yet they could easily see that food insecurity and hunger are endemic in American society. They decided to find a way to donate their university’s perfectly good food to community nonprofits.

Connecting the dots wasn’t easy. The university’s director of dining services helped the students understand the complex safety and liability concerns associated with food distribution. Under her guidance, they eventually began recovering thousands of pounds of food monthly from a single campus dining hall.

Then something extraordinary happened. The students started telling friends at other colleges and universities. They founded the nonprofit Food Recovery Network (FRN) in 2011 to manage a growing number of campus food recovery programs. In 2015, Regina Anderson became the organization’s executive director.

“It was all due to word-of-mouth from the students,” Anderson said. “We’re on almost 200 college campuses as of 2023, and the thing that holds us all together is the power of college students to recover food and recover that food safely.”

Donating Safe, Edible Surplus Food to Partner Agencies

The experience of the University of Maryland students plays out time and time again on campuses across the US, Anderson said. National partnerships with many college dining providers support the mission and model. Some chapters recover food from businesses surrounding campus rather than through their dining halls.

Thousands of student leaders work through official chapters in 49 states and the District of Columbia. All it takes is a designated faculty advisor and a leadership team of at least three students for an unrepresented campus to join the movement.

Photo of Regina Anderson
Regina Anderson, FRN executive director since 2015

Much as the director of dining services guided the original student cohort at the University of Maryland, FRN now provides resources for chapter activations, including food safety resources and a guide to food recovery.

“We take the temperature of the food and make sure that it’s safe,” Anderson said. “Our students are really well trained on how to do this — they do it often.”

FRN works with more than 300 hunger-fighting partners, including nonprofit food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, places of worship, and community centers. Partners may provide additional services beyond food distribution, including counseling and substance abuse treatment. FRN extends the effectiveness of its partners by taking on some of their food collection burdens so they can concentrate on other community development activities.

FRN has become a more data-driven organization under Anderson’s and her team’s leadership. Data insights play a role in decision-making and support the wisdom of the mission, Anderson said. Data also reveals the sustainability impact of food recovery.

“Food waste in landfills creates so much CO2 and methane that it’s the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” Anderson said. “We’re warming up our environment due to unnecessary food waste.”

Food Recovery Verified Program Supports Communities

Data also shows that about 34 million Americans live with food insecurity. More than 26 million tons of food go to waste yearly in farm fields, farmer’s markets, restaurants, higher education institutions, convention centers, and corporate dining institutions where the Food Recovery Network has an influence. All told, 52 million tons of food goes to landfill annually.

“That means about 19% of our gross domestic product is created and then destroyed,” Anderson said. “That includes about 23% of our potable water — drinking water used to grow, transport, and cook food that we just throw away.”

FRN extends its network through its Food Recovery Verified program, which the team created a few years ago to formalize outreach to new partners. Partnerships with large campus dining halls fall under the Food Recovery Verified umbrella, as do relationships with conferences and events that often generate large amounts of surplus food.

Photo of FRN Food Recovery Verified program
The Food Recovery Verified program works with campus dining halls and event managers to repurpose surplus food.

The seamless verification process starts with a conversation with a program professional, who will collaborate to create a food recovery program tailored to the needs of the business or event. FRN also ensures designated nonprofit partners receive regular food donations from newly verified businesses.

“Our amazing partner agencies are on the frontlines feeding people who are food insecure,” Anderson said. “Food Recovery Verified helps businesses understand how to work with these agencies, and we help them create a plan.”

Food Recovery Verified is also a recognition program. FRN lists more than 150 verified accounts on its website. Businesses and events save money by achieving higher food handling, preparation, and storage efficiencies and making better purchasing decisions. Organizations also report improved staff morale and a heightened sense of pride.

“Our goal is to champion the corporations and institutions doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Advocacy for Food Equity and Sustainability

The Food Recovery Verified program is ultimately about reassuring stakeholders that they can engage in food recovery activities without fearing liability damage. To that end, FRN also engages in advocacy and education to protect chapters and partners while giving them more freedom to act.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, is the most pertinent legislation in food recovery. The law protects good-faith food donors from civil and criminal liability when they work with local nonprofit organizations.

Because food and economic insecurity go hand in hand, FRN has campaigned to preserve and extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. And it works with the Poor People’s Campaign to advance the Fight for $15, a national campaign to adopt a $15 federal minimum wage.

Graphic of FRN advocacy
FRN played an instrumental role in passing the Food Donation Improvement Act.

FRN also offers extensive resources for student-led advocacy, including campaign-planning resources and guidance for supporting FRN’s national agenda.

FRN participated in the coalition that fought successfully to pass the Food Donation Improvement Act, a 2022 amendment to the Emerson Act that expands Emerson protections to include donations of grocery products.

FRN has recovered about 12 million pounds of food since those early days at the University of Maryland. A partnership to handle food recovery at events sponsored by the National Association of Realtors extends those inquiries to housing insecurity. FRN also partners with the FarmLink Project, another student-born nonprofit that connects farmers to food banks.

And through its three-year strategic framework known as FRN10X, FRN seeks to address the many forms of inequity and environmental harm food recovery reveals, with students leading the way.

“Our students do so much to open the eyes, hearts, and minds of people who might not necessarily know about the issues we are tackling,” Anderson said.