April 26, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Addressing Food Waste and Insecurity on Campus: The Big Red Food Rescue

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The U.S. wastes more than 40 percent of its domestically produced food. It is a hard statistic to come by: between unharvested crops, undesirable or “ugly” produce, overabundant supermarket aisles, overzealous shoppers and discarded leftovers, large amounts of food waste occur at every step of the food chain. Current food waste estimates remain conservative, and may not include additional areas of undetected food waste at the household, retail or restaurant levels.

At the same time, food insecurity affects an estimated 13 percent of American households. Defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food” food insecurity is related to prominent social issues like obesity and educational shortcomings. The U.S. food stamp system acts as one key measure of insecurity, and approximately half of all children will have participated in the program by the age of 20. Large numbers of people across the country are going hungry — even more are consuming poor quality and unhealthy foods due to financial restrictions — all while millions of tons of consumable, nutritious food go to waste.

While food waste and insecurity are national concerns, they impact communities and people in a distinctly personal way. Without knowing about the issues’ scale or being a part of the affected population, food waste and insecurity are easily missed. The Big Red Food Rescue was created to bring light to these issues on Cornell’s campus.

Cornell represents a near-perfect microcosm of the disconnect between wasted food and those who need it. Every day, our dining halls throw out thousands of pounds of processed and fresh foods. Dining halls are held to strict food-safety policies that hinder them from disbursing the food to hungry students, and the cafés on campus are concerned with both legal liability and profit margins. Concurrently, the most recent Cornell PULSE survey [Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences] highlights food access instability as a prevalent subject for nearly a third of the student body.

There are a few initiatives already fighting food insecurity at Cornell, including the 626 Thurston Food Pantry and Anabel’s Grocery, as well as other organizations in Ithaca and Tompkins County like the Food Recovery Network and the Friendship Donation Network. The Big Red Food Rescue looks to supplement existing on-campus projects by drawing more of the student body into this effort. We want to dissolve any stigma attached to food insecurity on campus, and give students a platform to share experiences, propose solutions and apply real pressure to reduce waste and divert excess food to people instead of compost piles or landfills.

Our group has begun by helping to reinvigorate the 626 Thurston Food Pantry. The food pantry is a place where students are welcome to come pick up staples like bread or cereal, no questions asked. After applying for and receiving a grant, the pantry will expand its offerings and facility capacity in the next few weeks. Dr. Renee Alexander, director of the pantry, is excited about drawing in more students who could benefit from the assistance, and is ready to provide support for similar initiatives led by other groups like BRFR across campus.

Looking to the future, BRFR wants to build a sustainable network of students who are passionate about change. There are several barriers to successful elimination of food waste and food insecurity on campus, ranging from the sheer size of the issue to ingrained policies protecting those who participate in redistribution efforts from any and all liability. With enough backing and push from the student community, change will come.
Our group needs your help to make a difference on our campus! Connect with us on social media to get the latest updates on events and initiatives, as well as educational pieces on how we as individuals can have an impact on the food and agricultural industries.


Alyssa Bruce is a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She wrote this column on behalf of this semester’s DSOC 4700 course. The Big Red Food Rescue can be found on Facebook at Big Red Food Rescue, on Twitter as @BigRedFoodRescue, and at [email protected]Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.