The Food Recovery Network is a student-based group that combats hunger in Vermillion by donating leftover food from USD.
As a graduate student at USD, Eric Schlimgen was no stranger to the late-night food cravings that came after a marathon study session. Schlimgen would often rush from the library to the Muenster University Center before closing, and he’d wince as leftover food from earlier in the day would get thrown away.
Instead of feeding landfills, we should be feeding people, he thought.
“This was perfectly good, wholesome food, but it was being thrown out at the end of the night,” said Schlimgen, a USD graduate, who earned his B.A. in political science and criminal justice in 2013, and Master in Public Administration degree and Juris Doctorate in 2016. “I watched that for years. I knew I had to do something to take that food and get it to a population that needed it.”
A frequent volunteer at the Vermillion Food Pantry and Vermillion Welcome Table – an organization which serves a community meal every Monday night – Schlimgen was aware there was a food insecure population in the community, but had no idea how deep the issue ran. Clay County is one of the most food insecure counties in eastern South Dakota, said Teresa McDowell Johnson, executive director of the Vermillion Food Pantry. Nearly 18 percent of youth from birth to 17 and 20 percent of the county’s total population fall under the poverty guidelines and experience food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Nationally, 12 percent of American households are estimated to be food insecure, according to Feeding America.
“It’s pretty alarming for Clay County,” McDowell Johnson said. “Our community members are having to make choices. Say an unexpected medical bill came this month. Does that mean they’re not sure what they’re going to do, that they don’t even have ramen noodles in the cupboard? People are having to weigh between paying a bill and having food on the table. We are one of a small number of counties on the eastern side of South Dakota that has that poverty rating.”
Schlimgen decided to use his interest in food waste and recovery as his capstone project – but didn’t want his work to remain theoretical.
“Traditionally, a capstone was a project where you would hypothesize about something that could make an impact on an organization. I wanted to use the capstone as an opportunity to better the Vermillion community and solve something I saw as a problem, with something I saw as a problem,” he said.
In January 2016, Schlimgen began researching what other universities were doing to combat food waste, and discovered the Food Recovery Network, a national coalition of schools committed to fighting food insecurity. Food recovery is the donation of wholesome food for consumption, which diverts waste from the landfill and puts food on the tables of food insecure families. Since its inception in 2011, 230 chapters have been created in 44 states and Washington D.C., with more than two million pounds of foods recovered by students nationwide.
“My biggest questions were, ‘How do I structure this, and who is going to take this over when I’m gone?’” he said. “The Food Recovery Network provided the structure and guidance to make this a sustainable movement at USD.”
With the support of John Lushbough, founder and director of the Vermillion Welcome Table, Schlimgen approached campus dining provider Aramark and presented his research. He spoke about food insecurity rates in the community, the procedures of donating food responsibly set forth by the Food Recovery Network and the legal precedent set by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects those who donate wholesome excess food to nonprofits by shielding them from being liable for the donated food.
“While we make every effort to minimize waste in our operations by keeping accurate production and consumption records and have very little waste, we are able to utilize the partnership with the Food Recovery Network to donate excess food,” said Stacy Kauer, marketing coordinator for Aramark. “Because the MUC is so large and serves so many students, faculty and community members, the partnership between us, the Welcome Table and the Food Recovery Network chapter here on campus is of utmost importance in the efforts to eliminate hunger in our community.”
With an in-kind donation agreement from Aramark in place, Schlimgen began searching for a student organization that could take his research and implement a sustainable protocol for food recovery on campus. He landed upon the Alternative Week of Off-Campus Learning (AWOL) program, a student-run organization that emphasizes service learning and active citizenry, both locally and abroad.
Hailey Purves, a senior dental hygiene major, served as the first director for the Food Recovery Network and worked with Schlimgen to turn his vision into a reality. While the project was complex conceptually, logistically, it is fairly simple. Aramark handles the bulk of the work by packaging and freezing all of its excess food. From there, the director of the Food Recovery Network and Lushbough weighs and documents the food, then transports it to the Vermillion Welcome Table, where it is incorporated into the meals they serve.
Purves said at first, the organization would only recover about 10 pounds at a time, but it didn’t take long before they were weighing 50, 100 and even 200 pounds at once.
“John would say, ‘There’s so much food, I don’t even know what to do with all of this food!’” she said. “It’s great for groups that want to help serve at the Welcome Table, because they don’t have to buy food off the shelf.”
Marissa Helm, a senior medical biology major and this year’s director for USD’s Food Recovery Network, said recovering the wasted food was eye-opening and made a lifelong impact on her.
“We don’t always think outside of our bubble on campus,” Helm said. “It was very shocking for me to learn about the food insecurity rates in Clay County. As a future physician, I know I will run into people who may be at a disadvantage and may be suffering from problems with food insecurity. With my experience with Food Recovery Network, I know I will have resources for them and will be able to help them.”
So far, the organization has recovered more than 2,500 pounds of food – bulk foods like bagels, soups, rice, casseroles, hamburgers, chicken, mashed potatoes, produce and bread – that has been donated to the Vermillion Welcome Table, the Vermillion Weekend Backpack Program and Tanager Takeout.
“I wanted to use the capstone to better the Vermillion community and solve something I saw as a problem, with something I saw as a problem.”
The Vermillion Welcome Table is a community meal open to the public every Monday night. It sponsors the Vermillion Weekend Backpack Program and Tanager Takeout – two programs in the public schools that provide snacks and easy-to-prepare meals to students who may not have enough to eat over the weekend. Both programs are under the umbrella of Feeding Vermillion, a collection of multiple local nonprofits geared toward providing solutions for food insecure populations.
Lushbough said the Vermillion Welcome Table averages about 140 attendees each week, while the Weekend Backpack Program and Tanager Takeout serves about 250 children in the school district.
During the school year, approximately 5-10 percent of food served at the Vermillion Welcome Table comes directly from Aramark – up to 50 percent in the summer, Lushbough said.
“Over the past year, I don’t think I’ve spent $50 a week on food for serving that many people, and that’s due in large part to Aramark, as well as Feeding South Dakota,” Lushbough said.
While the Food Recovery Network is still a small but committed group of students, the impact of the student community as a whole on food insecurity is vast. The Vermillion Food Pantry estimates students donate 20,000-30,000 pounds of food each year through various drives. Lushbough estimates 75 percent of the groups in charge of the Welcome Table each week are USD student groups.
“There are two parts to the Welcome Table- there’s the welcoming and there’s the table part,” Lushbough said. “Getting the meal prepared is probably the easiest part. The welcome part is the hardest and it’s one of the things the students nail. It’s just amazing how students seem to instantly understand our mission.”
“The passion that the students show in helping with the food insecurity in our community is insurmountable,” Kauer said. “Without their passion toward this effort, Aramark wouldn’t be able to have as large of an impact of the community as we do.”
Kim Albracht, assistant director for the Center for Academic and Global Engagement and AWOL adviser, said the creation of the Food Recovery Network perfectly demonstrates how student research can translate into real-world solutions.
“This shows us that students doing research on campus are making changes and bringing something very valuable to our community,” she said.
Albracht said she encourages students to get involved with the Food Recovery Network because it brings light to a hidden issue that people don’t always notice in their communities.
“It’s one of those issues that isn’t always visible to students on campus,” she said. “But just talking about food insecurity and who is being impacted is a good start. It brings awareness to a major problem in our community and in our nation. With service learning, our goal is to help students understand that they can incorporate what they’ve learned on campus to help their community thrive. The Food Recovery Network is a perfect example of that.”
Although Schlimgen has officially passed the torch to the students on campus, he says he still receives the occasional phone call from Lushbough, who updates him on the organization’s progress. He hopes the group’s success will echo in other parts of the state and region.
“I’m so thrilled to know the organization is still fighting food waste,” he said. “I really wanted it to be in the hands of the students and for them to run with it. We are one of the first Midwestern states to take on what I think is a pretty progressive endeavor to end food waste and combat food insecurity. USD is the first and only university in South Dakota to do this. I hope it can serve as a model for what other schools in South Dakota
and the Midwest can accomplish.”
“It speaks a huge amount to the connection that the campus has with the community,” he continued. “This is the campus and community coming together to mutually solve a problem, which is what makes USD and Vermillion the great college town that it is.”