Emily Lederman

“FDN really took me out of my Cornell bubble to see that the community has needs and that we can fulfill those needs. Just talk to people and you can get so many ideas; it’s incredible. There’s so much we can do to help.”

Have your parents ever told you to not waste your food?

They’ve got a point – according to a July 2016 article from The Atlantic, “the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion.”

Food can be lost as produce deemed too unattractive to be sold, as spoiled food that must be thrown out, or simply as excess thrown into the garbage. In addition to its environmental repercussions, food waste poses a serious, social issue. Ironically, in the United States, a country that struggles with obesity and food waste, over 48 million people are food insecure.

We can contribute our efforts individually, but college campuses across the country have begun to partner with local organizations to fight food waste and help the hungry. I spoke with Emily Lederman (Mechanical Engineering ’18) of Cornell’s chapter of Food Recovery Network (FRN) to learn more about their work:

“There are different types of food waste. People take too much food – that’s outside of what we do, but Cornell has initiatives to fix this issue: no more trays and smaller plates to reduce what people take initially, because you can always go back for seconds.

The second type occurs when you have an institution as large as we are. Chefs have to make large servings in order to be efficient. Sometimes reusing extra food isn’t viable, so we bring unserved, leftover food to our partner agency, Friendship Donation Network (FDN).

FDN’s purpose is to take excess food and distribute it in Tompkins and nearby counties. 1 in 4 people in Tompkins County is food insecure, and FDN organizes the distribution of 1,000 pounds of food each day.

We’re extremely lucky at this chapter because there’s already a distribution system in place; other chapters have to coordinate how they’ll distribute the food they recover. FDN is all volunteer based, too – there’s only one salaried employee!”

One concern that is often voiced is the risk of lawsuits when donating food. Thanks to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, food donors are protected from liabilities, “but it’s still really important that we be very careful because we need to make sure that the food is safe.

We take unserved food in a heater and cool it to below 40oF – we can’t have food between 40-140oF because we need to make sure that the food is safe. (Many foodborne diseases thrive within that temperature range.)

That’s why we operate on a small scale – to maintain quality, even though there’s so many opportunities for food recovery here at Cornell.”

Out of the 29 on-campus dining locations, FRN works with 2. “We used to run food recoveries at Becker House (on West Campus), but West Campus now has its own repurposing process to reduce food waste, which is great, so we now recover from Okenshields on Central Campus and RPCC on North Campus. West campus also doesn’t serve the same volume that Okenshields and RPCC do”, making the opportunity to recover food waste even more effective.

Where is Cornell’s FDN headed in the future?

“In terms of expanding to other dining halls, we’re thinking about recovering at Northstar, but we’re also interested in recovering from non-Cornell owned cafes, such as Manndible’s and Zeus’. There are fewer food safety issues because most of the food sold there are prepackaged.

We’re also trying to keep one project per semester. Last semester’s project was ‘gleaning’ – do you know what that is?

What that means is that we would go to farms and take foods that are perfectly fine but not sellable based on their appearance. We recovered 2,600 pounds! It’s amazing, because we hardly made a dent. There was still so much food left!

This semester, because gleaning is difficult to do in the winter, we’re taking more of an educational approach, particularly with best buy and expiration dates. We want to raise awareness and teach people how to tell when foods go bad. We just got permission to go to a middle school and teach 8th graders a lesson in their home ec class about sustainability and repurposing foods. We’re going to try to cook with them and make it hands on – for example, making banana bread with ripe bananas, milk, and eggs. I think targeting young kids is really effective.”

To finish our conversation, I asked Emily what I’ve asked nearly everyone who’s been involved with Food For Thought project – what is one thing you’d like to tell the audience?

“FDN’s motto is ‘don’t let your food become compost’. I really like that idea, because there’s so many ways to repurpose food. FDN really took me out of my Cornell bubble to see that the community has needs and that we can fulfill those needs. Just talk to people and you can get so many ideas; it’s incredible. There’s so much we can do to help.”


Stay updated with Cornell’s Food Recovery Network on their Facebook page!

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