#FRNSpeaks: University of Denver, Sodexo and & Denver Rescue Mission

What a huge issue surplus food is in our country, but how simple the solution can be! In Denver, the solution started with the ideas and efforts of Paul Sherman, a senior at the University of Denver (DU). Paul has built a three-prong partnership between the DU Food Recovery Network (FRN) chapter, Sodexo; the national food service that provides meals in the university’s cafeterias, and the Denver Rescue Mission, whose Lawrence Street Shelter provides food for 1700 individuals, three times every day of the year.

Paul states the problem clearly: “How is it that each year, while an estimated one billion people starve, we throw away an estimated billion tons of food? That does not and will never make sense to me, which is why food recovery just seems right. When you break it down, it’s such a simple solution. Every week, that hour and a half I spend conducting food recoveries means that someone in Denver doesn’t have to go to sleep hungry that night, and it significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Being a part of one simple solution to a major issue that has several ramifications truly inspires me.”

Though the solution may sound simple, the process of setting it up was not. After being turned down by the first person on campus he approached with his idea, Paul tenaciously contacted Mandilyn Beck, Sodexo’s Sustainability Coordinator. Paul credits Mandilyn with being the one person who made it happen, together with his leadership team and the staff of FRN, whose weekly phone calls with Paul turned the “no” into a kick-start “yes.” It did take all of Paul’s sophomore year, though, to set the plan in motion. One challenge was finding fully committed student volunteers.

By his junior year, he had established a working and reliable leadership team of eight students, each with delegated jobs (events coordinator, marketing director, treasurer, and the like). Food recoveries are done three times a week, and involves one member of the leadership team, plus one or two volunteers. The team picks up the food from the campus kitchen and delivers it to the downtown Denver Rescue Mission. After much trial and error to manage volunteers, Paul finally came across a time-saving website, “Signup Genius,” that helps his leadership team contact volunteers at short notice.  Paul’s ingenuity helped him win a contest sponsored by Zipcar that paid for Zipcar-based transportation of food throughout his junior year, with the addition of FRN grants covering personal car and gas expenses during his senior year.

The rewards have been all Paul could imagine. Sometimes there will be hundreds of pounds of food waiting for the FRN team to pick up. “Our initial reaction might be, ‘Wow! This is great! Look at all of the food we will get to deliver,’ but then another thought always crosses my mind, ‘I cannot believe all of this was going to be thrown away’…that sense of shock and confusion has never really gone away for me.” And, as he says, “Every time I go and hand the food to someone and see a face light up, I know that the people receiving it feel genuinely grateful.”

Paul emphasizes that FRN allows “college students to do their small part in changing the norm — because at the end of the day, hunger, food insecurity, food deserts, all of these really heavy and widespread issues, are not food shortage issues. It’s not famine. These all derive from a distribution problem.”

A Religious Studies / International Studies double major, this spring semester Paul will serve as Sodexo at DU’s first food waste intern, and after he graduates, he plans to work in the field and may eventually attend a graduate school focused on food policy. He credits FRN and the Center for Sustainability at the University of Denver for setting him on this path.

Another person who has played a key role in FRN at DU’s achievements has been David Goergen, the Retail Operations Director for Sodexo at DU. David enthusiastically terms his work with Paul and the FRN as a “great success!” One obvious benefit is that the partnership has shown the company how to save money. Since FRN requires the weighing of food during each recovery, David was able to calculate how much money his company could save. For example, the pasta station in the school café was a “bold endeavor,” that, at first, produced too much leftover food. According to David,  “ We were looking at piles of chicken primavera.” Sodexo has since learned to customize the operation so that students now select what combinations they want of pasta, veggies, and meats — and Sodexo has cut down on its food expenses. Fortunately, for the Denver Mission, there is still surplus nutritious food to recover.

David sees other benefits to their food recovery efforts. Namely, the staff has taken on more personal ownership of their work. Since they are the ones who package the surplus food (and with no complaints, according to David), they now take satisfaction in knowing that the food will not be thrown away and, instead, be given to those who need it most. Paul tells how many times the Sodexo employees will come out of the kitchen to thank the students for transporting the food they have spent so many hours preparing and packaging for delivery to the Mission.

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The person most responsible for seeing that these deliveries are put to immediate use at the Denver Relief Mission is its Food Service Manager, Jeremy Stubbs. Jeremy is one productive person; he runs two kitchens (one at the downtown homeless shelter and the other at the Lawrence Street Community Next-Step Program) that supply 1700 meals three times a day, every day of the year! The homeless shelter serves meals to over 1300 men. It also provides alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment programs as well as job training. The Next-Step Program provides meals to approximately 400 individuals. The program also offers affordable housing and training programs for low-income families on such topics as money management and parenting skills.

Jeremy commends the students’ commitment and reliability. Students also volunteer once a month as food servers at the mission. Food donated by DU’s FRN chapter feeds at least 100 people per day. The reception has been very positive since the food is of higher quality and “more savory than what they are used to.” Jeremy also praises his chefs, who make “every little bit count” in stretching the prepared meat and vegetable dishes and fresh fruit and desserts, to feed such a large number. He estimates that ten percent of the mission’s clientele are service veterans.

Due to the leadership of these three people, the University of Denver Food Recovery Network Chapter is a shining example as to how a few committed individuals, working together, can recover 17,000 pounds of food in just one year and help improve the lives of those who, most likely, would otherwise go hungry. This team has been an inspiration to other schools across the country and thus a worthy subject for this, our first profile of a series devoted to different university chapters working with the national FRN staff in College Park, MD — whose executive director, Regina Northouse, just happens to be this author’s daughter-in-law.