Students and staff help rescue prepared foods and create ready-to-eat meals for local families
The lunch crowd at Dewick-MacPhie dining center is thinning out when Lucy Zwigard, A18, and Shelby Luce, A17, pull on hairnets and plastic gloves in a corner of the kitchen. They’re soon scooping sautéed kale, Tuscan rice and beef strips with veggies into compartments on single-serving meal trays. Zwigard slips each tray into a device that instantly heat-seals it with plastic film, and voila—ready-to-eat meals that help feed more than 25,000 people in communities near Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.
Luce and Zwigard are volunteer coordinators with the Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative (TFRC), which is a student-staff-faculty partnership that works with the Cambridge nonprofit Food for Free to provide the meals.
“The work we do here is an incredible response to three serious issues: food waste, environmental sustainability and the hidden hunger in our communities,” Zwigard said. “There’s going to be inevitable waste when you’re feeding 1,000 people or more every day in the dining halls, so why not try to recover it safely and get it to people who really need it?”
Three times a week, Food for Free picks up portioned meals at Tufts, delivering them to homeless families living in a hotel in Brighton and to low-income children and teens in Somerville and Cambridge.
Patti Klos, director of Dining and Business Services, said the ready-to-eat meal trays are an improvement over the previous way Tufts donated prepared food, packing it in gallon bags that were then frozen. “We know how difficult it can be to create individual portions from frozen food,” she said. “Food for Free was happy to donate a food-prep machine, and we have a model now that’s ideal. We are saving them a step in the food delivery process and building a strong core group of volunteers. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
John Beaulac, associate director of residential dining, grants that introducing food salvage requires a bit more work for his staff. Now they “have to secure the food and discern whether it meets quality standards, and that takes time,” he said. “But once they understood the program’s value, they bought into it immediately.”
Thomas Cunningham, A16, knows firsthand that solutions can be found. He started the conversation with Tufts Dining, Food for Free and student groups to explore if packaged donations for Food for Free were possible and worthwhile. The impetus was his own experience: as an undergraduate, he volunteered with Food for Free, helping prototype delicious and nutritious ready-to-eat meals that would measure up to the quality of what you’d find at Whole Foods, he said.
In fall 2015, as part of the Food Justice class in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, he continued to explore that concept’s potential. By the spring, he was reaching out to Tufts student groups to crowdsource volunteers and scheduling the first people to package donations.
Last fall, the students hit the ground running, producing the ready-to-eat meals. There is an easy online portal to sign up for volunteer slots, and Tisch College has funded a work-study position that will ensure continuity after student coordinators graduate.
Cunningham believes that these volunteer opportunities are compelling to students who want to make a difference. During a one-hour shift, one student can make 20 to 30 meals to feed five or six families. The work, he said, “deepens student engagement with the issue of food access. We can translate advocacy into a very visceral human experience.”
Fiona Crimmins, a program manager at Food for Free, agrees. “It’s not every day that you can say you made something that is going to be someone’s dinner and that is going to prevent someone from being hungry tonight,” she said. “That’s a powerful thing.”
If you are interested in volunteering at the dining centers, email tufts.FRC@gmail.com.
The TFRC and partners across the university are planning a symposium, “Intersections of Waste and Food Insecurity,” on April 7, which will draw on the collective ideas of students, staff and faculty from the Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy; the School of Arts and Sciences; Tisch College of Civic Life; Tufts Institute of the Environment; and Tufts Dining.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.