The Swearer Center for Public Service van carrying over 20 pounds of food donations does not encounter much traffic on its midnight trips down the hill to Kennedy Plaza. While most occupants of the homeless shelter at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church are sleeping, students from Brown’s Food Recovery Network unload the boxes of leftover muffins, bagels, pastries and packaged produce collected from campus eateries every evening. The operation hardly takes any time at all, but each nightly installment of food donations makes a difference for the local Providence community.
The network, a new student group affiliated with Rhode Island’s non-profit corporation We Share Hope, aims to reduce waste and increase food donation to local homeless people by collecting and transporting leftovers from Brown’s eateries and cafe carts. The goal is figuring out how to “make more food reach people and not the trash can,” said Shelby Wilson ’15, one of the group’s leaders.
The network was first established by students at the University of Maryland and now has participating chapters at Pomona College, University of California at Berkeley and Brown. During his gap year before starting college, Ben Chesler ’15 was working at Search for Common Ground in Washington when he and several University of Maryland students came up with the idea for the group. After returning from South Africa, where Chesler donated food first-hand, he decided he wanted to bring the program to Brown. Last semester, the national network, which includes all the participating colleges, donated 15,000 meals, according to the network’s website So far this spring, the network has recovered 2,000 meals.
Food delivery dynamos
Brown’s chapter performed its first food recovery and delivery Nov. 11 and has been growing ever since. In addition to weekly contributions of up to 200 pounds of food from Brown Dining Services, students perform a nightly pickup of leftover baked goods and packaged produce from the Blue Room, the Sciences Library, the Rockefeller Library and Barus and Holley. With the use of a Swearer Center van, the group delivers each night’s donations directly to the Mathewson Street church.
When Chesler pitched the idea of the club to Dining Services, “there was very little hesitation.” The group has regular meetings with Associate Director of Dining Services Peter Rossi to work out logistics and add new dining locations. Almost all of the operations take place after midnight, once the food has been compiled at each of the pickup locations. Despite the late hours, the trip is quick and easy, usually taking less than half an hour to complete.
To increase efficiency, Chesler said that the group is implementing a clipboard system to keep track of the number of items collected from each campus eatery. They will also record and report the weight of the daily donations. Any students who have taken a driving course with a Brown insurance agent are authorized to drive the Swearer Center van used to transport food donations.
“We’ve been having student clubs take charge,” Wilson said. The Brown Democrats, St. Anthony Hall, Brown/RISD Hillel, emPOWER, Athletes in Action and the Delta Tau fraternity are among the groups that have volunteered to deliver food.
The Brown Democrats have been involved with deliveries for the past two weeks. After hearing about the Food Recovery Network from Chesler, one of the board members of the Brown Democrats decided to get the group involved.
“We have decided to help out with Tuesday nights,” said Emily Regier ’14, the group’s civic involvement chair. The group was already looking for various volunteer opportunities, Regier said, and as they have meetings on Tuesday nights anyway, they decided to make it their night for food collection and transport as well.
Wilson said reaching out to fraternities and other student groups is helpful as they often have their own cars.
“We’re still looking for more involvement all the time,” she added.
Chesler said the group’s greatest challenge is that the closing times of the various cafe carts and eateries differ. “We’re really willing to take any food, no matter how small the quantity, but we can’t be running around from 7 to midnight every night” collecting food, he said.
Midnight meals for the homeless
The connection to the Mathewson Street church is in part due to Chesler’s previous work with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a student organization based at the Swearer Center.
“I just knew that (the church) was a place that was open to this idea,” he said. The Mathewson Street church operates one of the emergency winter shelters in downtown Providence and stays open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Because it is overnight, the church does not provide a structured meal to people who use the shelter. The donations from Brown are distributed to the shelter occupants before they leave in the morning.
The network not only seeks to help the homeless, but also to raise awareness about the benefits of food donation in general.
“Legally speaking, it’s a lot easier to donate food than people think,” Wilson said. In fact, the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, named after former U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson, provides that people who donate surplus food are not liable unless they show “gross negligence.” Food donated to an approved agency is eligible for a tax reduction of one half the food’s appreciated value, according to the Food Donation Connection’s website.
Saving food is environmentally advantageous. The network is “green and socially responsible,” Wilson said. In the future, members hope to incorporate reusable bags and containers for shepherding food to the shelter.
Blue State Coffee has also agreed to donate food to the chapter and the group hopes to collect from more businesses on Thayer Street in the coming months, Chesler said.