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Fighting for (Healthy) Food Security

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Food Rescue Program, run entirely by Tufts students, collects healthy food that would otherwise be discarded and delivers it to local pantries and shelters.

Sam Woestwin with rescued food

On any given afternoon, you might come across a couple of Tufts students driving to the nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and filling up a van with as many as 200 pounds of food. But they’re not stocking up for late-night study sessions or preparing for a big campus party. They are part of the Food Rescue Program, which picks up healthy food that would otherwise be discarded from supermarkets and other donors, and delivers it to shelters and food pantries across Medford and Somerville.

This initiative, entirely run by Tufts students, first began nearly a decade ago has recently flourished under new leadership and support from Tisch College. “The program was dormant for about seven years, and a student [Joshua Malkin] who graduated last year started it up again with a few other people three years ago,” says Jeremy Gross, A14, who started to get involved last summer and now serves as co-chair. The program is run through the Leonard Carmichael Society, which provides the vans and other logistical support, and it currently does seven rescues per week.

Since last June, the Food Rescue Program has signed up more than 60 volunteers and carried out over 100 pickups, totaling at least 9,000 pounds of food. More than a dozen organizations have benefited from the group’s donations.

“When the program first started off it was really just about what donors can we contact, what members of the community can we get involved,” explains Gross about the list of donors and recipients that they developed. Recently, however, the group has shifted its focus and is now placing greater emphasis on rescuing not just food, but healthy food.

“One of the things we’ve seen through the program is that there’s a big need for fresh produce, for example, because people donate other stuff. We’ll accept food from anywhere, but we really want to seek out places that have what we’re really looking for, specifically,” says Gross. “We want to provide the right kind of nutrition.”

To that end, the Food Rescue Program has made it a priority to collect fruits, vegetables, proteins, and other staples of a nutritious diet. They have expanded their donor list to include local farms and farmers markets, with great success. “This summer we went to farmers markets where there were literally 200 pounds of fresh produce,” says Gross. “We had the van filled completely.”

A Fruitful Partnership

Much of the food in that van, as in all of the students’ rescues, was destined for Project Soup, a food pantry run by the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC). Started in 1969, Project Soup was the first community meal program in New England. Last year it served over 1,700 people, more than a third of them children.

“Most of the people who will come to the pantry are housed, they’re just having trouble making ends meet,” says Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of SHC. “If a family has to make a decision between paying their rent or buying food, we’d much rather they take care of their rent and come to us.”

Tisch College and Tufts University have had a long and fruitful partnership with SHC. Through service learning courses supported by Tisch College, SHC and other community partners were able to gather data and build a support system on issues of food security in Somerville. Thanks to those efforts, Alston-Follansbee and others identified strategies to provide more nutritious food. “Historically, for years, this food pantry would give bags of non-perishable food,” he says. “We’d always try to put some protein like peanut butter or tuna fish, but it was not very healthy.”

A big problem was a lack of appropriate cold storage for large amounts of perishables. But in 2012, thanks in part to fundraising by Tufts students in an Experimenting with Philanthropy class, SHC acquired a walk-in cooler/freezer.

Now, able to receive and store the healthy food provided by groups like the Food Rescue Program, the change has been remarkable.

“The really exciting fact for me is that, in a year and a half, we’ve gone from having practically no fresh produce to give to the people who come to Project Soup, to now 95 percent of people who come to the pantry are getting fresh produce with their non-perishables.” says Alston-Follansbee. “It’s radical.”

Alston-Follansbee attributes this welcome change directly to the involvement of Gross and his group. “One of the problems with a small non-profit like ours is that we just don’t have the capacity to do a lot of things,” he says. “We couldn’t do this without the Tufts students and the Food Rescue Program.”

Innovation and Sustainability

Another one of those students is Sam Woestwin, A14, who first got involved with the Food Rescue Program as a volunteer and currently occupies a work-study position supported by Tisch College at SHC.

“Right now I handle the operations side,” he says. “I am in charge of coordinating volunteers, doing pickup runs when people can’t make it, and making sure the whole system of the donors and recipients is working well.”

According to Woestwin, beyond the much-needed service that the Food Rescue Program provides, doing this work has given him the opportunity to start thinking more broadly about some of the bigger issues involved. “I’m blown away by the amount of food that we rescue,” he says. “The quantity that would be going to waste daily is staggering, and we’re one of the smallest organizations that do this work.”

As an economics major, Woestwin also sees connections with what he has learned in the classroom — connections that go beyond the particular problem of food security.

“Figuring out how to utilize resources that are going to waste is going to be a huge area of innovation in the next few decades as resources become scarcer and people need to be more creative in using what they have,” he says. “Food rescue is an embodiment of this kind of creative spirit that we’re going to see manifested in other ways.”

Woestwin and his fellow students are also being creative in other ways to help ensure the sustainability and growth of the program. Working with a programmer from MIT, they developed a website for signing up volunteers, scheduling pickups, and organizing important information from their donors and recipients. They hope to add additional functions soon, like automatic scheduling and mobile alerts when a donor has food available for pickup.

“When the website reaches its full potential it’s going to be able to do a lot of things and will make the program even more effective,” says Woestwin. He is also thinking ahead to later this year when he, Gross, and other seniors involved in the program will be gone.

“Through the Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies minor in the School of Engineering’s Gordon Institute, one of my projects this semester is creating an operations manual for the program, so when we do pass it along for the next generation all the knowledge we’ve been able to accumulate over the course of us running it won’t be lost,” says Woestwin. “I’m excited about that opportunity to do this and to be supported by Tufts in doing that.”

Woestwin particularly highlighted the support provided by Tisch College, which is also sponsoring a Local Food Security Fellow at SHC this summer, specifically to work with the Food Rescue Program.

“The resources being put in by Tisch, their effect is being multiplied by this organization so greatly. Whatever funds are going in are making a huge difference.”