Campus & Community

Food programs grow as Harvard cooks up new ideas

7 min read

Students turn dining hall surplus into frozen meals for the hungry

Twice a week after dinner, a group of Harvard University student volunteers files into Annenberg Hall’s kitchen and gets to work. The students take off their jewelry, put up their hair, wash their hands, and form an assembly line to package that day’s surplus food into convenient, individual-sized meals, ready to feed the hungry.

And there are a lot of them. Nearly 10 percent of Massachusetts families — or more than 266,000 households — experience chronic hunger, according to Project Bread’s 2016 status report.

Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) helps address the crisis by working with the nonprofit Food for Free through the Harvard Food Program, a food recovery and donation program to curb food insecurity in Cambridge and Boston. Since it was started in 2014, the program has donated an average of 40,000 of pounds of bulk food donations per year, translating into roughly 30,700 meals per year.

This summer, the collaborators took the program one step further. With the Family Meals initiative, students now package individual, frozen, microwavable meals, to give hungry families with limited cooking facilities a healthy, convenient option.

“Harvard’s students come from all over the world, with very different experiences around food and food access,” said Crista Martin, HUDS director for strategic initiatives and communications. “The Family Meals program allows them to participate in a very hands-on way with understanding the food system here on campus, and how Harvard connects to the local community.”

Each week, HUDS staff and volunteers consolidate and organize the unused food for individual meals and bulk donation, which Food for Free picks up and distributes to local agencies that feed people in after-school and day-care programs, food pantries, and shelters. Beneficiaries include Brighton High School, Cambridge Community Center, Gardner Pilot Academy’s Adult Education English for Speakers of Other Languages program, Kennedy-Longfellow School, the Harvard student-run Y2Y homeless shelter, and many more.

During the summer, Harvard made nearly 1,100 family meals on site. Over the course of a year, the University donates an average of 2,600 pounds of food a month, according to Fiona Crimmins, program manager at Food for Free, who has been helping coordinate Harvard University’s donated food since 2014.

“Our program bridges the gap from all the food that Harvard donates to those in need,” she said. “Harvard is a huge supporter; these meals are a great source of food security for people.”

Typically, donations to Food for Free are made up of bulk-packaged frozen food. Because the food must be frozen for safety reasons, Family Meals created a process to package food into individual meals before freezing, with tremendous benefits to both donors and recipients.

“When we put our day’s surplus in a bag it’s wonderful, but with the Family Meals assembled meals, you see a very complete, beautiful, healthy product, and you can picture someone sitting down to have that meal that is so much better for them,” said Martin.

“A lot of people have the mistaken impression that any food is OK when you are food insecure. But it doesn’t feel good if you look at [a meal] and think, that doesn’t give me nutrition, or dignity while I eat it.”

Every dining hall at Harvard has enough surplus to package up to 75 individual meals each day. Martin said all meals are well-rounded, and always include a protein, grain or starch, and a vegetable. Harvard’s donated meals include items such as barbecued chicken, vegetable quiche, and curried tofu, with sides of jasmine rice, roasted potatoes, and steamed vegetables or sautéed greens.

“The exciting thing that Harvard is doing, is they are taking the food from their lunch and dinner service that day, and packaging with refrigeration, so there are many different types of food that they can donate without limitation ­­— dozens and dozens of different things every day,” said Crimmins. “It’s like breaking down all of the options in a world-class cafeteria, and it’s good food. We are saving really good, high-quality, whole foods for folks who don’t have access to it.”

Another benefit of the Family Meals program is sustainability. While HUD’s goal is to utilize a food measurement system to effectively manage the amount of food they prepare for students, it is hard to predict how many students will eat in the dining halls each day.

“It is our job to responsibly manage the dollars that students give us with their meal plans,” said David Davidson, HUDS managing director. “But in the food industry we can find ourselves with quite a surplus at the end of the day — roughly 5 pounds of food every lunch, every dinner, from every location.”

That surplus is shared with those in need, and what cannot be donated — such as leftovers on students’ plates — is composted.

“Trying to not only reduce food waste on campus, but also make sure the leftovers we have are put to their best possible use, is a great example of how we’re turning Harvard’s holistic Sustainability Plan into action,” said Brandon Geller, program manager of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program. “Meeting the complex challenges of being truly sustainable means that we need to find these double wins, like food recovery and donation, that will help us achieve our overall vision of enhancing the well-being of both people and the planet.”

Students agree. Geller said while undergraduates have a low average of food waste per capita, getting students involved in food recovery on campus engages them in the thoughtful steps they can take to reduce food waste not just in the dining halls, but in their personal lives.

Meaghan Townsend ’21, a freshman Resource Efficiency Program representative with the Office for Sustainability and a food recovery volunteer, said she is a particularly thoughtful consumer in the dining hall, being sure not to take more than she can eat.

“As Harvard students, we are so fortunate to have access to plenty of healthy, delicious food. It’s important to recognize the moral responsibility that comes with this privilege,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves and to the community to minimize the amount of food we waste and maximize the amount we recover. Thankfully, this program makes it so easy for students to be part of that effort.”

Motoy Kuno-Lewis ’19, food literacy project fellow and the food recovery fellow for HUDS, leads the volunteers for the Family Meals program. He said participants are very proud of their work and their University for helping in this mission.

“This volunteer work has tangible results for our community, and helps foster a better understanding and awareness overall of food insecurity,” he said.

For their efforts, HUDS and Food for Free received the 2017 Visionary Award from the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

“The Visionary Award is a real honor and recognition of the extraordinary work our Harvard University Dining Services team does every day,” Davidson said. “The award honors all the men and women of our team who make it possible to extend this service to the community of which we are so proud to be a part.”

Martin said it has been invaluable to have a partner like Food for Free to help channel student enthusiasm into a program that is replicable at every university in the country.

“Imagine what we could collectively do to eradicate hunger if every university had a partner like Food for Free,” she said. “We’re fortunate to live in such a supportive and innovative community.”