A University of Massachusetts senior is looking to connect students with the community through cutting on-campus food waste and volunteering to join the fight against hunger.
Hotel management major and newlywed Steven Graves has been working over the course of this year to introduce a new program he is calling the Campus Kitchens Project (CKP) to the University. The program would help deliver ready-to-eat food that is unused from the Dining Services and other food-related campus-based organizations to local community-serving operations such as churches and the Amherst Survival Center for those in need.
Graves is heavily involved in the food business. He works in the Blue Wall at UMass’ Campus Center and plans to move on to culinary school after graduation. And while Graves has a love and dedication for food service, he also has been attempting to address what he feels is one of the industry’s biggest flaws: waste.
Graves began exploring an interest in discovering the depth of America’s hunger issues while working in the food service industry and noticing that several elements of the process of commercial food production, such as over-ordering or simply the process of preparing food for large-scale consumption, leads to what he sees as a great deal of waste. To gain better insight, Graves enrolled last fall in a resource economics course titled Hunger and the Global Economy, taught by Professor Julie Caswell, head of the department of resource economics.
“In taking the course, I had hoped to discover ways to find out how food service providers could help curb the U.S.’ hunger issues,” said Graves in a phone interview. “I also found that the hunger issue in America was much bigger than I thought it was.
“Normally when you say ‘hunger,’ people immediately think homeless people, which is definitely an issue, but bigger than just that are people with low incomes who have families who have to make tough decisions between paying the heating or medical bills or going out and buying groceries,” said Graves. “Those are the people, along with homeless people, who can benefit from this type of program.”
Determined to find a way to contribute to fighting hunger, Graves attended last October’s Western Mass. Hunger Summit held in Holyoke. It was there that Graves became acquainted with Michael Kurtin, the CEO of DC Central Kitchen, the parent organization of the CKP.
According to Graves, Kurtin told him that UMass would be a great place to launch a chapter of the CKP. In an email, Graves explained that the CKP, which was founded in 2001, unites student volunteers and community organizations in a food recovery program to provide meals to in-need populations within a university’s community.
“Ever wonder what happens to all that left-over food from the DC’s? Well, [for] now, it end[s] up as compost,” continued Graves. “Our group seeks to recover unused food from Dining Services, local farms and other area businesses, as well as the Food Bank of Western Mass. With that food, we will create healthy, nutritious meals, and deliver those meals to community organizations that already serve those in need.”
As stated on the CKP’s web site, the organization’s mission includes “strengthen[ing] bodies by using existing resources to meet hunger and nutritional needs in our community … empower[ing] minds by providing leadership and service learning opportunities to students, and educational benefits to adults, seniors, children and families in need,” and “build[ing] communities by fostering a new generation of community-minded adults through resourceful and mutually beneficial partnerships among students, social service agencies, businesses and schools.”
Graves said these ideas matched his and, he suspected, those of many students at the University, and, while he feels that the process of getting the program implemented has been more complicated than he would have desired, he remains hopeful.
“It’s been a slow process of gaining student support and [negotiating] with dining services and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at UMass,” said Graves. “We’ve had meetings with them, but it’s been slow.”
In order for the project to begin, the organization would need approval and support from UMass Dining Services before it would receive national affiliation.
“Supporting [the] UMass community is always a good idea. In terms of the UMass Kitchens Project, we are just learning about it,” said Director of Dining Services Ken Toong. “It is a very complex project that requires several level of approvals.”
There are several logistical issues that have been presented, such as dining services not being far off on its predictions of daily food consumption, and that there also remains a spatial issue, as starting the CKP would require additional areas for kitchen space, refrigeration and food storage. According to Graves, there have also been intense concerns that students would not necessarily know how to handle the reused food properly.
“I don’t think it’s rare to find someone who gets excited about [fighting hunger],” said Caswell, the chair of the department of resource economics, in a phone interview. “It is, however, rare to find someone who really does it and successfully organizes to do it.
“Steve was able to recruit and bring in a lot of really good people to the project,” she said. “I think that’s the rare part is making it happen. I think one issue is the coordination with the University and having the University feel assured that the campus kitchens project will handle the food properly and be reliable,” Caswell said.
Toong and Graves both said that currently, the UMass Department of Health and Safety is taking an active role in discussions with Graves.
“I know their main concern is food safety,” said Graves. “We have that completely covered, though. The national organization has a great program that has a leadership team from each university take a course in Washington, D.C. to train in leadership and food safety.”
A certain percentage of the volunteers would also be required to become ServSafe certified, which is the standard on food safety, Graves mentioned.
Funding concerns also appear to be less of an issue, as CKP’s parent organization would fund the program for the first three years once a feasibility study has been completed by the University’s dining services.
Prior to spring break, Graves and other student leaders, including several members of the Student Government Association, met with other on-campus food-based organizations, such as EarthFoods, People’s Market, Garden Share and the Food and Beverage Management Association and Nutrition Club, to discuss their potential involvement. The meeting received nearly unanimously positive feedback from the different organizations in regards to working with the CKP – even framing it as the umbrella organization to connect the food-based groups, Graves said. EarthFoods has discussed the potential of sharing its kitchen space with the CKP.
“This project would give those organizations an opportunity to volunteer on campus,” said Graves. “It provides a place for students to volunteer their time without leaving campus. Any student involved with political science, sustainability, food, nutrition or anything that has to do with sustainable food and the environment, will have a place to use their specific skills and volunteer.”
“I really think it is an excellent way to use University resources to connect to and help the community,” said Caswell, who has been teaching for 25 years.
Alyssa Creamer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.