Volunteering with Cornell Food Recovery Network
For my 100 Hours Make a Difference Challenge, I volunteered with the Cornell Food Recovery Network. The Cornell Food Recovery Network (CFRN) is a campus organization that collects food from dining halls and redistributes them to communities in need within Ithaca. I was excited to volunteer with CFRN because I have always been inspired by their work in fighting food insecurity and reducing food waste, which are both extremely prevalent issues in this community. I am personally very passionate about de-normalizing food-insecurity, so my hours of voluneer with CFRN felt a lot like research as well as service.
I have been in communication with many of the leaders of CFRN over the past year to have conversations on potential ways my social enterprise, Everybody Eats, could collaborate and support the work of CFRN. I am also a mentor to one of the CFRN teammates in my role as an Engaged Ambassador at the Office of Engagement Initiatives, so it was a fairly quick process for me to get in contact to volunteer with CFRN, despite the fact that it is outside their typical volunteer recruitment cycle. Traditionally, volunteers with CFRN are gathered at the beginning of the semester and scheduled for recoveries in advance. I felt lucky to have been able to join in on the work at the last minute!
Once I got in touch with their lead of volunteer work, Regan, I scheduled an appointment with her directly to get training on how to volunteer with CFRN. In an hour-long meeting, she briefed me on all of CFRN's operations, the mission, their impact, and what my role would be during my volunteership. Listening to Regan explain what a CFRN recovery entailes, I was incredibly impressed by the smoothness of their operations.
As previously mentioned, CFRN has a schedule set for who is volunteering on what day. The volunteer schedule is detailed and takes into consideration how often people volunteer so as to not schedule too many volunteer shifts for the same person. They do not do recoveries everyday, but perhaps twice a week from different dining hall locations that they partner with. Their partnerships are specifically with Becker, RPCC, Okenshields, Cook, and Rose dining halls.
The day of the shift, a groupme is created with those volunteers for that recovery so everyone can communicate. There is a common meeting spot of Willard Straight Hall which is where volunteers collect the t-shirts, hats, containers, thermometors, and other tools needed for the food recovery. I thought it was cool to see how CFRN clearly had an agreement with Willard Straight Hall to use some of the locker and storage space there to keep their materials.
Once the materials are collected from Willard Straight Hall, the group migrates to the assigned dining hall for the recovery. I particularly enjoyed this brief walk from WSH to Becker dining hall because it gave me the chance to ask my fellow volunteers what their interests were and why they volunteered with CFRN. They were freshmen and sophomores, and each had their unique stories for volunteering with CFRN. It seems as if they get a lot of their new members at club fest, because both of the girls stumbled upon CFRN unintentionally that way.
When we arrive to the dining hall, we wait to get in contact with the volunteer driver and prepare our instruments to collect food. This includes testing the thermometor, preparing the food log, and putting on the CFRN printed shirts and hats. It was very cool to see how experienced the two girls were with doing this, as they needed no instruction. I was happy to learn from them both on this trip!
After we get in our gear, we grab a few containers and go to the chef to ask what trays of food we can take today. Once the chef gives us the trays of food, we first test the temperature of the food with our thermometor. We have to see if the food is above a certain temperature, otherwise the safety of the food may have been compromised by bacteria. Next, we put the trays into the quick-freezer that automatically brings the temperature of the food to below 40 degrees to keep it at a temperature that is safe for consumption. Then, we take the food out of the trays and put it into our own containers. After collecting all the food that is available for us to take, we put it in our special temperature controlled bags and bring it to the van to be brought to Friendship Donations Network (FDN) downtown. FDN is a local non-profit that collects food that could otherwise be wasted and redistributes it to other non-profits and emergency food providers, like Loaves and Fishes. I have actually visited the FDN site before and seen their massive refrigerated room and learned a bit about their operations. I think it is very special that CFRN has such a strong relationship with FDN who is committed to feeding Tompkins County!
After the recovery is complete, we return all of the items back to the Willard Straight Hall storage spaces.
I felt that I gained a lot from volunteering with CFRN, especially because it better informed me of ways I could help food providers evade food waste. Volunteering with CFRN showed me specifically what goes into the logistics of saving food from being wasted, which is truly a logisitcal challenge in most cases. I honestly assumed it was an issue that was very difficult and not feasible for most food privders. Getting food to be redistributed in a timely and safe manner is constantly aspired for but not frequently done enough. Now that I've seen how CFRN recovers food, I think it is definitely possible to recreate their operations in a different context! One day I hope to use the insights I gained from this experience to imagine ways that Everybody Eats can help restaurants recover food waste.
One thing I also gained insight to is the importance of taking care of volunteers. Making sure the operations are organized are not just important for the logistics of reaching CFRN's mission, but it is also important so volunteers can have a seamless experience. I appreciated that they were so organized because I felt like all of my time was being used well and effectively. One area I thought they could improve on though is providing clean tshirts and hats for volunteers to wear. I was very hesitant to put the hats on that they gave us because I knew they were not clean and I did not know who wore the hats last or when the last time they had been cleaned. The same was true for the t-shirts. One of my co-volunteers had a t-shirt with a dried up food stain on it and she said that the shirts didn't appear to be clean at the beginning of the semester either, which begs the question of when the t-shirts and hats were last cleaned. I think this kind of care for the volunteer experience is important, because for people who are hyper-hygienic, this might discourage them from contininuing to volunteer with CFRN.
All in all, I think the impact CFRN makes in their recoveries is incredible. They do not disclose how many pounds of food they recover from Cornell Dining Halls because of a contract they have with them, but they often save many pounds of food from being wasted in each recovery. In my recovery at Becker, I was surprised that there were no trays of food left to be recovered. It made me happy, however, because I knew that meant that Becker dining hall was doing a great job at cooking the perfect amount to meet their demand, which means that they are not being wasteful. I truly aspire to do more work with food providers in this way in the future after graduation!