Undergraduate students at Harvard University get to choose from a wide array of sushi, sandwiches, pizza, and more from fourteen different dining halls. With over 6,500 undergraduates eating three meals a day, Harvard goes through a lot of food, some of which inevitably isn’t eaten.
“Our goal is to have the same choices at the end of the meal as the beginning,” said Crista Martin, Director for Strategic Initiatives and Communications for Harvard University’s Dining Services. “Students don’t RSVP for dinner, and we don’t know how many are coming. There would invariably be left over food.”
Harvard used to put the leftover food, about 2,500 pounds per week of healthy food that had never touched a plate, into compost.
However, since June 2014, Harvard has partnered with Cambridge-based Food For Free’s Prepared Food Rescue program to redistribute this otherwise wasted food to local hungry families in need.
Food for Free had been rescuing food from supermarkets and farmers’ markets for 35 years, but only recently developed the process necessary to salvage frozen food in such a large capacity.
“We heard of a food donation collection at a Whole Foods down south,” said Food For Free Executive Director Sasha Purpura. “Whole Foods was freezing and donating food at their hot bar, and we realized that this was possible—and legal.”
It is necessary to freeze the food very quickly, and keep it frozen until Food For Free can pick it up for redistribution.
“At the end of a meal, we take any food that is salvageable and gather it into clear, plastic bags,” said Martin. “We label it and freeze it. It’s an effort to bring it down to holding temperature quickly, and freezing it is the only way for us to do that.”
Food For Free picks up the plastic bags usually once a week and repackages them into smaller, single-serving meals. These meals reach families in just a day or two after collection.
Food For Free delivers their food to several organizations for people in need, including Malden’s Bread of Life, which helps feed 90 families living in three motels without access to a kitchen. They also deliver to Y2Y and Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, both of which are affiliated with Harvard University and have many student volunteers.
“It’s a nice closing of the loop,” said Martin. “They get good, healthy food, and the students are proud that the food is being treated with respect.”
Health is a huge factor in the Food For Free program. While many families in need can afford to buy cheaper food, they often do not get the essentially nutrients they need.
“Hunger in this country is not due to lack of access to food,” said Purpura. “It’s nutrition that’s the challenge. Fruits and vegetables are expensive. A family in a motel [that Bread of Life helps] can walk to McDonald’s and get dinner, but get food high in calories, sodium, and fat.”
Thanks to Harvard’s healthy donations, Food For Free, and Bread of Life, these families now have access to much healthier meals.
Not only has this partnership helped battle hunger and lack of nutrition, it has also been helping the environment.
“Forty percent of food grown never gets eaten,” said Purpura. “Most goes to a landfill, which results in methane gas, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and helps cause global warming—never mind that people are hungry.”
Harvard was the first university they decided to approach, due to Harvard’s continual effort to learn food safety, including their recycling and composting programs and their farmers’ market run by Harvard students. Over the years, Food For Free has expanded their Prepared Food Rescue program to MIT, Emmanuel College, Tufts University, and local businesses like The Fed Reserve Bank of Boston.
“There has been more interest in food donation, more attention to food waste,” Purpura said. “There has been great starting momentum.”
The momentum has certainly kept going: in 2015 alone they rescued nearly 2 million pounds of food in total, which amounted to about 1 ½ million meals given to 25,000 people in the greater Boston area.
“The work Food For Free does is extraordinary,” said Martin. “We’re proud to support their cause.”
Beyond their Prepared Food Rescue program, Food For Free also rescues food from farmers markets, grows vegetables, helps at panties, and so much more. To learn more or to volunteer, go to www.foodforfree.org.