Summer 2020


Undergraduate wearing a hair net and rubber gloves places meals packaged in plastic containers on top of a rack.
Microbiology major Sammy Struss stacks packaged meals in the Gordon Dining and Event Center while volunteering with the Food Recovery Pre-package Program, which repackages leftover food from UW–Madison dining halls and distributes them to students experiencing food insecurity. The program was created with a grant from the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation. Photo: Michael P. King


It’s a late fall afternoon on the UW–Madison campus, and seven undergraduates are scooping jasmine rice and a lemongrass tofu-vegetable dish into single-use plastic containers. These well-rounded meals were originally destined for a tray at one of six UW dining halls. But supply was greater than demand, so a team of students — overseen by dietetics majors — repackaged the food for a new purpose.

The students are part of the Food Recovery Pre-package Program, a new effort to reduce both food waste and food insecurity. After a night in the freezer, the containers will be transported to The Crossing, a Christian campus ministry and registered student organization.

From there, UW students experiencing “food insecurity” — lacking access to an adequate amount of nutritious food — will enjoy these microwaveable meals at no cost. The program operates on the honor system while delivering an average of 250 meals per week to students in need. During the 2019-20 academic year, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the program typically ran out of meals every week.

“The spirit of the project is to reduce food waste and reduce food insecurity,” says Monica Theis MS’88, distinguished lecturer in the Department of Food Science, who worked with Agnes Sherman at University Housing to develop the food recovery program. “We have some degree of both of these on campus, and we thought, why not start here and see if we can design something that can maintain itself over time.”

Last summer, the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation awarded a $27,000 grant for a one-year food repackaging program. Although there are other efforts to reduce food waste on campus, says Theis, “part of the funding was to see what we can accomplish if we pay student leaders as student hourly employees.”

“I love what we are doing,” says Brianna DeNamur BS’20, a nutritional sciences and life sciences communication major who was program co-leader before she graduated in spring. “It’s a good way to combine the fight against food waste with the fight against hunger.”

The student leaders have specific job descriptions and hire incoming assistant directors. “A big part of the project is sustainability, ensuring that there is a leadership transition so the program will be around year after year,” Theis says.

The program has recycled well over 1,000 pounds of food from markets and dining halls. “I’m surprised at the sheer amount of food,” says volunteer Mikayla Ehlert, a biology major. “As handling and marketing continue to be streamlined, there’s potential for even more.”

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for gleaning and repurposing food, “we do try to limit waste on the production end, looking at our past data about usage, the weather, even football games,” says Peter Testory, director of University Housing’s Dining and Culinary Services. “We track all these things so we order properly, produce properly, and limit overproduction.”

Sherman, food safety manager with Dining and Culinary Services, says the food “was only ‘menued’ starting at dinner Sunday, so we can repackage and stay within safety parameters.”

Other gleanings do not go to waste, however; they are distributed at community meals, Sherman says.

Overall, the repackaging effort is designed to be a persistent answer to two persistent problems at campuses across the country. “Our hope is that this will be a blueprint for other campuses,” says Sherman. “We are analyzing our approach: What is working for us? What are the important points to take into consideration? We want to express this so other universities, campuses can look at it and say, ‘How can we adapt this to our campus?’”

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