Food rescue solutions are attainable, Vinson Fellow’s review suggests

December 13, 2018

By Jacquelyn Harms

Jacquelyn Harms

Food rescue solutions are attainable, Vinson Fellow’s review suggests

To say that my research project as a Vinson Fellow took a few twists and turns would be an understatement! My project with faculty mentor Kris Sikes turned out much different than I thought it would.

I had originally intended to explore how food affects the waste stream in the United States and what can be done to reduce food waste. But after interviewing Tyra Byers of the UGA Office of Sustainability, I shifted the focus of my research to food rescue and what communities can do to better support food rescue initiatives.

Food rescue involves preventing food waste by collecting edible food from grocers, restaurants and dining facilities and delivering it to food banks and soup kitchens. The food may be overstocked, approaching its “sell by” date or have minor imperfections that make it unsellable.

Byers connected me with some of the Athens organizations that benefit from UGA food rescue. Athens-Clarke County is one of the poorest counties in Georgia and has a significant food desert, and UGA has tried to develop and support programs to combat this problem.

Using leads I got from Byers, I began conducting interviews across the county. Although I have done research interviews before, I had never done them to this extent. I was cold emailing people to request interviews, and it was certainly nerve-wracking! However, I gained more confidence as I completed more interviews. After each interview, I found myself with more information and more community members to ask about their involvement with food rescue and food waste.

Some of my favorite interviews were with UGA Campus Kitchen Administrator Nirav llango and David Campbell, general manager of the Athens Trader Joe’s, whose organizations are partners in an Athens food rescue project. Campus Kitchen picks up food that is near expiration or hasn’t been purchased from Trader Joe’s. Volunteers use the food to prepare meals to deliver to individuals in need. This relationship works because it is not burdensome for either Campus Kitchen or Trader Joe’s — they have arranged times when it is convenient for food pickup and for what foods would be used for cooking meals.

I also interviewed Jorge Noriega, executive chef with UGA Dining Services, about how an organization that handles thousands of pounds of food a month minimizes wastefulness. Dining Services essentially uses massive amounts of data to estimate how much food students will consume. When they miss the mark, they donate the unused food to Full Plate, which shares the prepared food with emergency shelters, food pantries, after-school programs and soup kitchens in the Athens area.

I also learned from Agricultural and Applied Economics faculty member Elizabeth Kramer that lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest problems in food rescue efforts. For example, if there is a farm in south Georgia with surplus produce that may not meet the standards that grocery stores want, transportation and communications infrastructure can be a barrier to “rescuing” the food. First, the farmer must communicate his or her desire to donate the produce. Then, a nonprofit would have to spend valuable time and money sending a refrigerated food truck to the farm. And the food may need to go into cold storage while the nonprofit identifies organizations that could use the food — and then deliver it.

There were times when the project did feel a bit overwhelming. I would walk away from some interviews feeling that the problem was simply too big to solve. I would hear about all of the roadblocks that food rescue initiatives would have.  However, I would then conduct my own research and find that there are solutions for these roadblocks. These solutions are difficult, but they are attainable as long as passionate individuals with a willingness to work hard and think outside the box are working together. This research has left me with hope for what the food rescue community can do.

Jacquelyn, an Honors Policy Scholar from Camas, Wash., is pursuing a double major in political science and international affairs. She is a Russell Security Leadership Scholar at the UGA Center for International Trade and Security and an undergraduate research assistant with the School of Public and International Affairs. She is president of UGA’s Moot Court team, a UGA Judiciary justice and an Arch Society and SPIA ambassador.