Regina Northouse and the Students of Food Recovery Network Fight Food Waste and Hunger

Photograph courtesy of Regina Northouse

Regina Northouse serves as executive director of Food Recovery Network (FRN). FRN was founded as a student group at the University of Maryland and has grown to become the largest student movement confronting food waste and hunger in the US - recovering surplus food from their campus communities and donating it to people in need. This national nonprofit, now with nearly 200 chapters in 44 states, has recovered and donated more than 1.5 million pounds of food that otherwise would have gone to waste. Read on to find out what inspires Regina, what students have taught her about making a positive impact and what she would change about the food system.

Food Recovery Network is a major player in the effort to address food waste and hunger in the US. Tell us about what FRN does and the scope of its work.

Food Recovery Network (FRN) is the largest student movement fighting waste and hunger in America. We as a movement, as a network, interact with hunger and waste every day. FRN chapters recover surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away and distribute that food to those who need it the most. In just five years, FRN has grown to a nonprofit organization with 198 chapters in 44 states across the country. To date, we've recovered more than 1.5 million pounds of food, which is enough to feed more than 1,000 Americans three meals a day for one year. We call this the student effect.

Five years ago, students at the University of Maryland at College Park began recovering and donating surplus food from their campus dining hall, effectively starting the first FRN chapter in our network. From there, FRN grew rapidly, spreading to opposite corners of the country all in the name of food recovery. Student leaders reach out to us literally every day because they want to be part of a solution to a few different BIG problems they see. They see nutritious food being thrown away. They also see people in their own communities who are hungry - and it doesn't matter if that community is rural or urban -hunger affects all communities. Our students are committed to doing something better with the surplus food their schools produce other than throwing that food away: they want to be part of making an immediate positive impact for their communities and move the needle on seemingly insurmountable problems. No big deal, right?

Our grassroots model has caught the attention of organizations and businesses who have seen and supported the success of our chapters: recovery is a simple, low-cost way to prevent tons (literally) of food from going to the landfill. Our model supports student leadership, supports our communities and can save businesses money.

Our goal is to support higher education to be the first sector where food recovery is the norm and not the exception. Within that goal, we support others - corporate dining, events, catering - in doing the right thing as well. It's behavior change driven by students.

FRN works primarily with college students. Why is that and what role can students play in reducing food waste?

Food Recovery Network was started by college students. Our foundation is rooted in the belief that students have the ability positively impact whatever problems they want to solve. The solution FRN's founders created is simple, and the model has proven scalable. What I love is that our model is driven by relationships to alleviate a community and environmental problem. Students are building relationships at every aspect of the food chain to ensure we reduce food waste at the source, and that when there is surplus food, there is a plan for what to do with that food.

Do you have a particularly inspiring story from an FRN chapter?

I have so many in the short time I've been with FRN. This is a hard question!

One of our most inspirational stories comes from our Program and Communications Fellow on our national team, Brandon. I asked Brandon to share his story from his perspective:

"Be it environmental, economic or social justice-related concerns, I'm happy to be a part of a team that is at the crossroads of so many important topics. I draw inspiration from my personal experience with food insecurity as my motivation for working towards FRN's mission. Growing up in a middle class family, we always had food on the table in some manner. Food insecurity, if it did cross my mind at all, was something that didn't really happen in the US, or so I thought.

That was soon to change for me. During my early adolescence, the bottom fell out for my family: my father's business went under, and my mother developed an autoimmune disorder. This all occurred at the cusp of the 2008 economic recession, adding extra financial difficulty. The stigma surrounding food insecurity was also challenging. Society projects an image of what a happy family looks like - and much of the time, the idea of family and food are inseparable. This is especially troublesome during the holidays; in particular, Thanksgiving. That Thanksgiving, I was certain that we just weren't going to celebrate. I was frustrated that we couldn't celebrate like we had done in years' past, while at the same time worried about the health of my parents and financial situation. Fortunately, I was soon to experience my first food recovery.

As it turned out, a friend of my father's had heard about our situation, and brought by our house a few other mutual friends. The group brought along the most amazing Thanksgiving leftovers with them, and filled our fridge with whatever we could store. It was an example of food recovery before FRN was even started. The impact of recovered food is immeasurable, especially around the holidays. It can change lives, empower communities and inspire others to take on the food waste fight."

If a group of students is interested in getting involved with FRN, what should they do?

I hope lots of students who read this want to be involved! The first thing is to be in touch with us! Check FRN's website to see if your school has a chapter. If so, amazing. Welcome to the Network! We encourage you to reach out to those students directly using the contact information listed - they want to hear from you! If your school doesn't have an FRN chapter, fill out a new chapter application and we'll connect you to one of our Fellows at the national office, like Brandon. The Fellow will provide mentorship and guidance through the process of getting an official FRN chapter started on your campus.

Sustainability is a big concept. Tell us what it means to you and your work?

Whenever food goes to waste, the resources needed to create the food and take it to the landfill are also wasted. That's water, fertilizer, gas, labor, LOVE and other materials lost with every wasted pound of food. By using tools that already exist to store and transport food, as well as partnering with organizations who are experts in serving their own communities, we can keep our environmental impact low and ensure that we are working responsibly. Sustainability requires that we use our precious resources in the most effective manner possible at every stage of food production. It also means we have the foresight to see new trends to support using those resources more effectively. It demands that we're asking the right questions before problems arise. I understand with multinational companies it can be hard to change a process across the board to ensure better results for the environment. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't fight harder to see change happen - after all, a small step in the right direction is still the right step. My goal is our students will be the sea change that supports faster-paced change, and it's coming!

What have students taught you about making a positive impact?

Without students, none of us would be where we are now with FRN. Our students infuse enthusiasm, dedication, tenacity, creative problem-solving, openness and hard work into the FRN model. Many of us were students at university and know how hard it is to balance schoolwork, jobs and being active in clubs on campus all while still maintaining a personal life. (Many of us have worked in food service and understand the cringe-inducing action of throwing away perfectly good food because we thought there wasn't another option.) What we've all learned is that the student leaders who bring FRN to their communities have a spark that drives them to make a difference - they want to give back to their community beyond just their campuses, they want to build relationships and they want to be part of a movement.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the food system?

I know that we have enough brain power and skills to solve much of the issues within the food system. So, I would like to raincheck use of my magic wand for something else...if that's okay.

Truly, I would like stakeholder groups at every level of production and distribution to further engage with each other to improve or at least mitigate inefficiencies in their portion of the system. We're here to collaborate at FRN, so let's start a discussion that leads to action! I've seen examples of stakeholder groups working together to decrease food loss like with Hunger-Free Minnesota, with companies like Sodexo and Chartwells working with their procurement teams, and FRN chapters, to ensure food is not wasted. When we try new ideas (and I know thousands of students across the country with a willingness to try new ideas if anyone needs an introduction), or improve old ideas that aren't as effective, that's when we move the needle.

The better we are at identifying points in the food system where waste happens, the more we can ensure that the food we grow is harvested efficiently, distributed efficiently and the surplus food that we produce can be delivered to feed millions in our country. Whether fresh or prepared food, let's be clear, we produce enough food to literally feed all of the hungry people in our country. As Brandon's story underlined, hunger in America isn't just those who are homeless. The majority of people who are food insecure are employed and, for a variety of life situations have found themselves where they don't have enough resources to consistently feed themselves and their families. Our students know it doesn't have to be this way.

In a system with so many moving parts, a snag in delivery or a simple miscalculation when making an order can result in quality food not having a home. Too often that food heads toward a landfill because it's cheaper and easier to throw it away. If recovery becomes the norm, restaurants, grocery stores, corporate dining establishments - any stakeholder in the foodservice sector will have the tools they need to handle their surplus food daily. This kind of work creates jobs, too! More, community partners and organizations, which often work with very limited budgets to support our most vulnerable populations, can use their precious dollars to provide nutritious meals that already exist instead of buying even more food. I know I'm motivated to do my part...and maybe to speed things up, that magic wand actually might come in handy...


Keep up with Regina and Food Recovery Network:

Twitter: @FoodRecovery 

Instagram: @foodrecovery

Facebook: FoodRecoveryNetwork

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Read FRN's 2016 Annual Report

This post was originally published in December 2016.