When a college dining hall is emptied and the students have had their fill, the kitchen staff has one more group to feed: the dumpsters. The day at most college campuses nationwide ends with perfectly edible food being chucked into garbage trucks, which roll the food along streets filled with the homeless and the hungry en route to a local landfill.
But on this crisp September evening, at the University of Maryland’s 251 North dining hall, things were different.
After the meal, the dining hall staff began placing stainless-steel trays filled with unused food on an island countertop near the end of a spacious industrial kitchen. One by one, steaming trays were stacked on top of the other as several college students snapped on latex gloves and discussed their game plan.
Their objective was simple, really: to intercept the food before it’s thrown away and deliver it to hungry people in need. That’s the ongoing mission of the ever-expanding Food Recovery Network, which was founded on Maryland’s campus in September 2011 by Ben Simon, the nonprofit’s executive director.
MORE: Feeding the Needy in Paradise: Hawaii Brings Farmers’ Markets Right to Their Door
Simon and seven student volunteers readied multiple plastic containers and scooped food into the bins. Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, spice-crusted tilapia, tomato and basil Caprese, pepperoni pizza, whole wheat penne, ciabatta rolls and chocolate cake were among the items they intended to deliver to a nearby church.
Then came the bacon. Everyone stopped. Simon, 23, darted toward the 1.6-pound tub of saturated fat and plunged his hands into the glistening mass of meat.
“This is just amazing,” said Simon, a vegetarian. “I’ve never seen this much bacon.”
He posed for a picture. The bacon grease faintly reflected the hairs of his perfectly manicured black beard and thick-rimmed Lacoste glasses. Once he was done swooning over the strips, the student volunteers loaded the dining hall’s food into the trunk of a silver Toyota Corolla and drove away.
MORE: What If You Could Do More Than Just Feed the Needy? This Food Bank Is Giving the Gift of Health
The type of food they packed, bacon included, is thrown out at 75 percent of college campuses across the United States. That’s roughly 22 million meals per year, trashed. Overall, Americans waste 36 million tons of food annually according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which leads to $165 billion in wasted costs and massive amounts of methane being released into the atmosphere. But since the founding of the Food Recovery Network at the University of Maryland and its initial teaming with Brown University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Pomona College in January 2012, the organization has expanded to 49 campuses nationwide. Simon’s short-term goal is to open chapters at 75 campuses by the end of the 2014 school year, all propelled by the seemingly commonsense mission of mobilizing students to salvage unused food and give it to local residents in need.
“We’re feeding someone,” says Allie Daniere, a sophomore at Maryland who went on her first recovery in September. “That is essential for life.”
Simon and the Alpha Phi Omega volunteers (one of many groups that mobilize volunteers at Maryland’s campus) delivered 126.4 pounds of food in 39 minutes to the Christian Life Center, a nondenominational church in Riverdale, Md., during their mission. They left their haul with 59-year-old Eric Thomas, a worker there, who grinned and vigorously shook Simon’s hand as the food containers were stacked onto a wooden table. Various Maryland students repeated the process two days later — chapters are required to average at least one recovery per week and vary their deliveries from shelter to shelter — while also salvaging meals from home football and basketball games.
MORE: Chef Fixes the Food Bank by Creating Healthy Meals for Four
Simon, who was named one of 2012’s Top 10 social entrepreneurs by ABC News and Univision, has launched a charitable effort throughout the country that may seem noble, even heroic, for anyone, let alone a college student. But Simon didn’t always see a future in social entrepreneurialism. In fact, there was a time when Simon, the founder of an organization that has helped recover more than 240,963 pounds of food as of January 2014, couldn’t open doors, couldn’t dress himself.
As a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., Simon was poised to become the football team’s starting quarterback. He worked out every day that summer of 2007 and bulked up to 195 pounds.
When Simon was at the peak of his athleticism, he began to experience recurring pain shooting through his chest, shoulder, biceps and back. He was forced to quit. The multiple tendonitis coursing through his upper body reached its height during his sophomore year at Maryland. Simon still attends physical therapy for two hours every day to combat the pain.
“This injury has been a blessing in disguise,” Simon says. “It’s taught me discipline and rigor. It’s taught me gratefulness.”
MORE: Turn Your Foodie Photos Into Food for Needy Communities
It also taught him about the world of social justice. Moping around Blair High’s hallways after stepping away from football, Simon was invited to attend a meeting of an organization called Students for Global Responsibility. There, he learned about the genocide in Darfur in Sudan; his priorities changed drastically.
“I spent most of my time before that hanging out and having fun, chasing girls and playing football,” Simon says. “I refocused all of my energy to try and make the world a better place. It was my way of turning a negative into a positive.”
Also during Simon’s junior year of high school his father, Vic, welcomed a homeless man into their Silver Spring abode. James, one of Vic’s tennis partners at a local public court, lived with the Simons for two years. He worked the night shift at Safeway and didn’t have health care, but helped Simon gain a better understanding of his priorities, of the world.
“It gave me a special glimpse at what it’s like to be poor and to not have your own place to stay,” Simon says. “To personally become a very close friend of someone like that was transformative.”
MORE: Making House Calls, To People Without Homes
As established as the Food Recovery Network has become — springboarding off of 2012’s grand prize victories in the Do Good Challenge and Banking on Youth Competition, contests that reward standout innovators, philanthropists and change-makers — the desire to expand is evident. Simon believes food recovery will one day become the norm, not the exception, in the U.S.
Currently stationed in an eclectic communal office on Maryland’s campus called the Startup Shell, Food Recovery Network’s staff is working to start a certification program, open a consulting line of business that empowers other organizations to eliminate food waste and ultimately house chapters at 1,000 colleges by May 2018, recovering 10 million pounds of food in the process.
Thomas and the Christian Life Center were simply thankful for the 126.4 pounds they received that night in September.
“We’ve been able to reach out to a lot of people because of this food,” Thomas says. “And that’s what it’s all about — just knowing that you’ve been able to touch somebody, to help somebody who’s in need.”
Editors’ note: Since the original publication of this story, Ben Simon, founder of The Food Recovery Network, has become a NationSwell Council member.
MORE: Can the World’s Largest Urban Farm Save Detroit?
We’re partnering with NBCUniversal to support the greatest innovators who are tackling some of the nation’s most critical issues. Tell us who you think the next biggest changemaker in America is by nominating them to be a 2015 NationSwell AllStar.