By Alexandria Terlesky
8:03pm – Sitting a table in Huffman dining hall, I glance at the analog clock on the opposite wall. It’s closing time, and only a few groups of students remain with their half empty plates stacked in front of them and their conversations coming to an end.
I’ve been waiting for two fellow volunteers to walk through the large, glass-windowed front doors. Neither show up by the time Connie, one of the women working for the kitchen staff, calls me over to start from where she stands behind the stone countertops.
Once I reach her, she places a hand on my back and starts guiding me through the kitchen.
“So here’s what you gotta do…”
An organization that provides food for the hungry generally needs food to do so. But the unfortunate dilemma of the Food Recovery Network when introduced to Denison University in 2012 was the complete lack thereof.
“We would get maybe two pans of food from the dining halls a month,” says Susie Kalinoski from behind her desk.
Her hair is shoulder length and arranged stylishly around her face from which light eyes shine. Her hands are clasped around the knee of one leg which is resting over the other, seemingly cradling it or holding it up. She sits straight, eye contact firm and confident like the handshake she gave at the beginning of the interview.
The only time she breaks eye contact is when she tries remembering an event that happened long enough ago to require a substantial pause for thinking. Whenever this happens, she looks towards the ceiling for a few moments.
After asking her how the food recovery went from barely scraping by to the successful endeavor that it is today, her eyes find the ceiling. Then, she answers, “I think what made [the food recovery] the most successful is when they switched it from Sodexo to Bon Appetit.”
8:07pm – Eagerly giving me instructions, Connie takes me around the kitchen for a short tour and then walks me back to the lift that goes down into the basement.
Grimy and oil-streaked from years of use, the repairs and/or replacements to the life are seemingly few since the building’s completion. The ride down offers little light and is accompanied by a medley of metallic clanging.
The doors slide roughly open when the lift reaches the bottom. Once we get off the lift, Connie walks me past loaves of bread stacked on carts which rest up against the walls of the hallway. They line it all the way to the large, garage at the back of the building.
When we get to the end of the hallway, Connie takes a sharp right. A large fridge door built into the back wall looks towards the loading dock’s doors in the opposite wall.
This huge, walk-in fridge holds the recovered food in its first main compartment. Five metal serving pans, labelled and sealed, are already stacked against one wall. Connie shuts the door after a few seconds to keep too much cold air from getting out.
After explaining how to properly label and sort the food I will be recovering, Connie hands me a sharpie. She doesn’t trust the pens in the dented pencil holder slouching on the shelf where the food check-in sheets lay. She wants to ensure that any writing will clearly show on blue painter’s tape without rubbing off.
Below this shelf are the pans used for recovery. Empty, they clash together as we lift four onto the cart we brought down beside us.
After this task is accomplished, Connie and I make our way back to the lift. Since I now know how to work the buttons on the control pad (or at least the buttons that still work), I take us back up to the kitchen.
Six years ago, not only was the Food Recovery Network introduced to Denison’s two dining halls, Huffman and Curtis, but Sodexo was also removed as the main food services and facilities management company at the university. Bon Appetit was then hired to take over. Now as the head of food services at Denison, Bon Appetit spurred the food recovery program into undergoing a slow but incredible makeover.
At this point, Susie lifts one hand in the air in the direction of Huffman (which is on the east quad), and softly swings it towards the direction of Curtis (on the west quad).
“Before it was kinda just the students going and they would, you know, freeze stuff for us.” Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t a “successful thing where we’re doing it all the time.”
As an example of the food recovery’s success, Susie nods at the twin of my red chair. It sits beside me, to my left, and displays several heavy-duty Tupperware tins resting on their shiny, red lids. These tins, Susie explains, are far superior to the disposable ones they had used as containers in the past when the food recovery first started.
Of all the improvements, however, the growing number of student volunteers is the most significant. Because of this increasing amount, training for students has become especially important. Generally, a staff member eagerly gives directions to students, just as Connie did. There’s a brief tour of the kitchen that leads to a quick demonstration on how to work the lifts down to the basement. Each dining hall has one of these lifts.
Then, students are shown the fridges where the food is kept. In Huffman, the fridge (as previously explained) is on the basement floor. In Curtis, it’s on the main level behind the kitchen.
Though both dining halls use student volunteers, Huffman usually uses a group of students for the recovery while in Curtis usually only individuals volunteer.
“A person will just be like, ‘Well I eat every Tuesday night in Curtis so I’ll do the collection,” says Susie.
8:09pm – Once Connie and I reach the top floor, the doors of the lift loudly open again. Connie walks out with me and takes a moment to look around.
“Let’s see what we can get…”
She turns her head to see three half-full pans of food resting under some heating lamps. The lights buzz from under glass sheets that form a roof-like structure over the counter the food is on. Both the lights and the glass are connected to a supporting metal beam.
Just as Connie points me in the direction of this area, a fellow kitchen staff member calls out her name from somewhere in the back of the kitchen.
“Just a minute!” she shouts back. And then, to me, “Start with the food over there.”
Both the Curtis and Huffman dining halls like to stay on specific schedules for food recovery. With adherence to stricter schedules, Susie illustrates how this enables more and more food going to those who need it.
“We do five… five or six times a week over in Huffman and we do about 12 times for all the meals in Curtis,” Susie says, dropping with her eyes from their focus on the ceiling.
After this brief mention about scheduling, Susie goes describes each of the dining halls’ collection processes in more depth.
First she talks about Huffman. As an aside, Susie admits that the food recovery program could actually collect more food in Huffman if it weren’t for Huffman’s snack-time hours. This period starts right after lunch and lasts until the time the dining hall opens for dinner.
Due to continuity of this period, the food recovered from Huffman generally comes only from what food is served to the students at dinner. The food from lunch is served to students until it runs out.
When asked why student volunteers usually recover food from Huffman in groups, Susie replies, “We try to get groups because that’s the most effective.”
For example, Women’s Track and Field is assigned the Thursday night shift. Generally, a different couple of athletes from this team are sent each night in order to rotate the volunteers out.
8:09pm – Connie gives me a pair of burnt oven mitts that have been resting off to the side of one stove before turning around to follow the sound of her name.
I push the cart over to the area she just pointed to. Slipping on the oven mitts, I reach for the serving spoon resting in the first of the three pans.
Under the glow of the heating lamps, the tofu medley seems even more orange than the broth it’s already swimming in. Limp tomato slices squeeze between the squishy white cubes of tofu and pale celery pieces.
I begin to scrape the stew into one of the empty pans I brought up from the basement with me. Eventually, the contents of all three pans of food (the two other pans had a vegetable medley in one and plain, basmati rice in the other) are scraped into the remaining empty containers.
The students who were sitting around me before have left, and the dining hall is now empty except for one group just getting up from their table. Carrying their collection of plates, they move towards the front of the dining hall.
Tucked behind a wall are four depository trash cans waiting at the front, ready to devour meal remnants. The first bin is designated for any recycling. Unfortunately, so few people actually donate their napkins and other recyclable items to this trash can that it’s just over halfway full.
The two next trash cans are both meant for compost, as indicated by the two large green posters above them.
Before this, there was only one green poster; the other was grey, marking its bin for meats and dairy with clipart illustrations of eggs and a filet. It’s difficult to tell if any of the group notices the change in poster display.
There are flyers hanging in bathroom stalls all over campus that call attention to this alteration in Denison’s compost. At the top, it reads:
“Compostable in Dining Halls: Help us reduce food waste at Denison.”
Underneath this large print is the information, “Denison’s new composting system is able to process all food waste, even meat, dairy, and bones. Please put appropriate items in the compost bin and take only what you will eat to help reduce the amount of food that’s sent to the landfill.”
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While the trash cans in both of Denison’s dining halls swallow the unfinished food of more than 2,200 students at breakfast, lunch, snack time, and dinner:
- 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year worldwide…
- …which amounts to US $1 trillion of wasted food.
- If all this wasted food was a country of its own, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, only after the United States and China,
- And just one-fourth of the food wasted yearly could feed 795 million undernourished people.
- The food waste in rich countries (which amounts to about 222 million tons) is almost equivalent to all the food produced in Sub-Saharan Africa (which amounts to about 230 million tons).
- European and North American consumers waste almost 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) of food annually, which is more than his or her body average body weight (about 70 kilograms, or about 154 pounds).
- These same consumers also waste almost 15 times more food than the African consumer.
- If one is curious as to the causes of such limited food resources in undeveloped countries like Africa, the main reason is a lack of technology and infrastructure.
- This hurts to hear, especially after knowing that food waste in Europe alone could feed 200 million hungry people.
- Returning to environmental impact, food waste generates 3.3 billions tons of carbon dioxide, which has continued to accelerate climate change.
8:10pm – One after the other, the group of friends deposit their miniature mounds of uneaten food into the trash. They joke with each other, laughs audible even over the sounds of the kitchen shutting down for the night.
Like the rest of their peers, they don’t look inside at the contents of the trashcan while throwing their food away.
They don’t see the inside nearly completely filled with their and others’ half-eaten items.
They don’t notice the number of completely untouched food items.
The group finishes tossing their food away. They place all their plates and cups onto the conveyor belt that takes the dirty dishes back into the kitchen to be washed. Complaints of how bad the food is sway through the air.
As I move to collect leftover slices of pizza from another counter, I still hear the group elaborating on wishes for better food options. They finally reach the front doors, which close slowly and lock behind them.
Since 2011, the chapters of the Food Recovery Network have diverted more than 210,980 pounds of food from the landfill to hungry Americans—enough to feed 154 Americans three meals a day for an entire year. Already this Spring, Denison has donated over 580 pounds of food to recovery.
“It’s not a huge commitment. It’s just weighing it, marking it, putting it in the fridge,” says Susie.
She reveals that Huffman has been going through a bit of a hard time in getting consistent volunteers. She unhooked her hands from around her knee, lacing her fingers together on her lap. She shakes her head slightly.
“We need people that are willing and kind of committed to the cause, to doing it every week.”
8:12pm – Once I gather some the remaining pizza and put it into the last empty pan, I look around for Connie but don’t see her. She must still be in the back dealing with whatever issue that seemingly arose. Pushing the cart full of the recovered food onto the lift, I press the button that closes the lift doors and then the one that takes the lift down.
Once in front of the fridge, I start following Connie’s specific labelling instructions.
I hear the lift coming down long before I see anyone actually appear. The woman who comes into the room is another worker from the kitchen who was cleaning serving spoons and spatulas behind me while I was recovering. She smiles at me and says a small, “Hello,” before going through one of the open loading dock garage doors.
She takes a box of cigarettes from her pocket and lights one. I cap Connie’s sharpie and make sure that the fridge door is firmly closed before turning around to wave to the woman outside.
Staring off into the night, she doesn’t see my gesture. I walk back to the lift and take myself up.
Once the food is recovered and is in the fridges, each dining hall has a specific routine for pick up depending on which hall it is.
“They’re all different,” says Susie. “For Huffman, it’s only Salvation Army because they serve three meals a day, seven days a week.”
The food is therefore recovered constantly in order to provide for such a consistent amount of meals. Not only that, but constant pick-ups in order to ensure the best lifespan of the recovered food.
“Even though it’s refrigerated, you don’t want it sitting more than two or three days, so every Friday everything is cleared out.”
Salvation Army contributes the most to this Friday clean-out, visiting both dining halls to ensure that all the food is cleared out in entirety. Besides Friday, Salvation Army comes on Monday and Wednesday, but the days can occasionally change depending on how much food is needed.
Salvation Army’s significant presence in food recovery also serves their free food giveaway on Thursdays. During this time, they give out whatever left over food cannot be made into meals in little bags to those who need a spare meal.
Monday, April 23, 5:34pm – A man settles his bike against a cement pillar outside the soup kitchen. He has no locking mechanism, but he seems undisturbed by this. He disappears through the two beige doors on which one hangs a shockingly blue sign with “SOUP KITCHEN” written in white letters on it.
Upon reaching the same door, I pull it open. Already, a long line of people already arranges itself around the perimeter of the room along the walls five minutes after opening. In the middle of the ring of people forming are long tables lined on either side with small stools the same color as the sign outside.
Moving to the back of the line, the man in front of me turns and motion to the space ahead of him. He has been waiting for someone, and doesn’t want to hold the line up. I shake my head and wave my hands in front of me. He turns back around.
As the line moves forward, more and more individuals walk in through the front doors. The line now wraps around half the room. As people get their food, they take their trays and sit down. They mainly sit in small groups, either as families or with friends they’ve made through frequent visits.
Though the gathering is significant in size, people only exchange smiles or brief greeting. The room is mostly quiet and filled with the sounds of food being eaten quickly and hungrily.
When I get to the front of the line, I quietly explain my story and ask if I may sit in for a bit.
“As long as it’s ok with them,” the woman behind the counter says. She has short hair that curls up around her head in a frizzy halo. Her orange shirt is one of the brightest things in the kitchen.
The long counter-window from which the meal is being served is not unlike one a person would see in an elementary school. Even the system is similar, the food scooped onto trays in specific portions while the line moves along person by person.
For this specific dinner, it’s potatoes, some sort of meat, a vegetable medley, and a frozen package that contains a small cherry pie. In only a couple of days, the tofu and rice disappeared.
There are no windows in this room, so the only natural light that comes in follows whoever opens the front doors. But even then, the cloudy day provides weak light and doesn’t do much to counter the dim fluorescence of the overhead lights. These leave the room in a pale yellow glow.
Several of the families brought their children, who sit quietly next to their parents. None of them run around or make much of a disturbance at all. Scattered throughout are several people sitting alone. These people don’t look up from their food.
Whenever any individual finishes eating, they quietly get up and dump their trash into the trash cans. They place their trays and utensils on top of the trashcans under the proper signage. Then they disappear through the front doors.
Not one person dumps leftover or uneaten food into the trash cans. Only wrappers are dumped, but other than that trays are wiped clean.
Only three women work the counter. While they serve, they engage in open conversations and laugh along with those in line. They’ve been here long enough to forge a connection with those they are serving. But the line keeps getting longer and longer. When they realize the growing length, they try to speed up as much as they can without another person there to help them.
After some time, my eyes drift accidentally to a clock on the wall over the trash cans. Its curly-que numbers read 6:04. Slowly, I push myself off my stool and walk around two tables to reach the back wall in order to avoid collisions with people trying to find seats.
I try to make my way to the serving counter to thank the women there for letting me join in, but they are too engaged with the task before them.
I glance up as I’m walking out the doors. Above the window-counter, on a yellow placard in green cursive is written:
“Bless this kitchen Lord and those who father here. Let this be a place we eat, laugh, and pray.”
Curtis, unlike Huffman, is opened to several agencies. Spark, for example, is an organization that offers support to disabled adults. They pick up food from Curtis on Tuesdays.
“Water’s Edge is another church that does meals for low income families. It’s in Buckeye Lake. Umm, the United Church of Granville…” Susie trailed off.
However, Salvation Army asserts its presence all year round, including the moths of Denison’s summer vacation. The majority of the university’s students may have left, but with the various camps that Denison hosts during these three months the food recovery stays up and running.
When food is recovered from these camps, it still goes through the same process of storage that it does during the school year.
“It comes from one dining hall and I assign them each a day,” says Susie. Salvation army, again, collects the majority of the food out of all the other organizations. Without their help, the left overs would just be thrown away.
8:19pm – I take one last glance around the kitchen in an attempt to find Connie. The kitchen is quieting down, and she seemingly disappeared. The tables in the dining hall gleam from being wiped down, their chairs are arranged neatly around them.
With the rest of the staff moving around, each one finishing some sort of task, I quickly ask one of the staff to thank Connie for her helpful and in depth tour and instructions.
Before I head out the front doors, I leave her sharpie on her seat behind the computer she uses to swipe all of the student’s ID cards.
I go back to my dorm room, and I write.