Food Recovery Network feeds Framingham families

(Students carpool to local shelters to deliver meals to homeless families. Photo by Shanleigh Reardon)

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Metal shutters are drawn across the entrances to the Dining Commons and very few students can be found in the McCarthy Center. At one table in the commuter caf, three students meet up and make their way through a heavy metal door into the kitchen and behind the scenes of the dining hall.

These students belong to Framingham State’s chapter of the Food Recovery Network (FRN). College students at the University of Maryland started the network in 2011 to reduce waste and fight hunger. According to its website, FRN is now a professional nonprofit and the “largest student movement against food waste and hunger in America.”

Framingham State’s chapter began in 2015 and meets every Saturday at 9 a.m. to collect the frozen food set aside for them by Sodexo. 

Club President Danielle Allen said the club typically collects and delivers 120 – 140 pounds of food each week to local shelters. She said Sodexo freezes the trays to keep the food fresh and safe to eat.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, Allen, along with sophomore Taylor Brogan and junior Robert Brown, unload two trays of food from Allen’s red Honda Civic coupe at the Sage House in Framingham. Across the front lawn of the large, green, multi-family home, a man calls out, “What have you got for us today?”

Allen and Brown respond, telling him they have braised beef and cornbread stuffing.

“Mmm, just like Thanksgiving,” the man says to another.

The two men start walking toward the front door of the home, stepping over children’s toys and bikes strewn throughout the yard.

Inside, the students can’t take their eyes off of what Brogan called “the cutest baby ever,” as they place the trays in the industrial-size freezer in the home’s kitchen. They wave goodbye to the blue-eyed, red-cheeked baby and are thanked by the two men who have made their way into the home’s entryway as the students exited.

James Martin, an employee at the Sage House, said, “We have 14 families here usually. All of those trays are not taken for granted. They’re definitely appreciated.”

The Sage House is operated by the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council and provides families with housing and addiction treatment services.

Allen said, “Food safety is something we’re concerned with as a club.”

Ralph Eddy, director of dining services, said dining services strives to reduce waste by ordering the precise amount of food they need each week. However, it’s difficult to predict exactly how much food will be consumed at each meal.

“Our role as a Food Recovery Network-verified restaurant is to safely cool and package food items that have not yet been placed into service at the end of a meal,” said Eddy.

Allen said it’s preferable when the donations consist of meat or hearty sides that people can fill up on.

“In the past, there have been times when we only had soup – and it’s hard to eat that much soup,” said Allen.

After figuring out how many trays Sodexo can offer the club for the week, club members call local shelters to find out which ones have freezer space for the trays. Then, after weighing each tray, the students load them into an eBoard member’s car and head to the first shelter.

“Usually, if there’s more than one eBoard member here, we’ll split it up so that we don’t have, like, four people walking into these people’s homes at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning,” said Allen.

Allen, a senior enrolled in the coordinated dietetics program, said this club is different than most because they don’t hold regular meetings or request funding from SGA.

“I don’t want to waste people’s time,” she said.

Allen understands how precious time is. Aside from classes and homework, she waitresses part-time and participates in clinical rotations 24 hours per week as a part of her degree program.

“It’s a lot,” she said.

Brogan said if the club had more members who attended regularly, holding meetings might be beneficial because more drop-off times could be coordinated throughout the week.

“Then we could have more fresh produce and not just frozen stuff,” said Brogan.

Karen McGrail, director of the John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at FSU and the club’s adviser, said, “The students in the coordinated program in dietetics have a rigorous schedule with classes in combination with their internships. The flexibility of the Food Recovery Network allows them to be active with food distribution activities as their schedules allow.”

She added the work this club does aligns with what food and nutrition majors learn in their Community Nutrition course, which covers food insecurity and requires students to volunteer at a local food pantry for three hours.

Jerusha Nelson-Peterman, food and nutrition professor, said “The Community Nutrition classes have a grant that focuses on food systems and food sustainability each semester.”

She added this March, the program will be hosting a “Sustainability Day” in the Dining Commons where students can learn more about food waste and sustainability efforts such as vegetarianism and recycling.

Allen said she has always been bothered by the amount of food that goes to waste while there are people who are hungry in our community.

“Dietitians are one of the few healthcare professionals who have the platform to talk about food waste and food insecurity,” she said.

Brown is on a different track. He is currently focused on wellness and hopes to become a school nutritionist. “I have a passion for food service,” he said.

The club primarily donates to homeless shelters in Framingham due to the high number of homeless people.

The most recent data on homelessness was gathered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Jan. 25, 2017. On this date, volunteers and planning agencies counted the number of homeless individuals in shelters. This count found 17,565 homeless people in Massachusetts, 2,080 of whom were in Framingham.

Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, told The MetroWest Daily News in December 2017, “Their emphasis is on families and individuals already connected to shelters, and they don’t necessarily get to people who are sharing housing with family and friends or are in a hidden location. … This is just the tip of the iceberg in who is experiencing homelessness.”

Allen said she worries about the club’s future. Many members are seniors and the club’s current eBoard consists of Allen’s friends and her boyfriend, who she recruited last year just to keep the club going. She said the club would benefit from more first-year and sophomore students joining.

McGrail said, “Although they are small, they are mighty! … It would be great to see the efforts of the club continue to expand in membership size and reach of food distribution.”

Allen said, “I would hate to see this club not be able to continue because there aren’t enough members or interest.”

She added, “It is very rewarding to see how thankful the families are when we donate the food.”

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