With about one in every six Charlottesville residents lacking access to affordable, nutritious meals, the student-run organization FoodAssist aims to address food insecurity by reallocating food that might otherwise be disposed of to community members in need — even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States goes to waste each day and generates six percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, but composting food waste fertilizes soil and reduces methane emissions that would be generated in landfills.
Since becoming a club in fall 2018, FoodAssist volunteers have recovered over a thousand pounds of food from Greek houses, dining halls and restaurants that would otherwise go to waste.
FoodAssist began before 2018, but it became an official contracted independent organization in 2019 under Class of 2020 alumna Kayla Spigelman. Spigelman helped alleviate food insecurity and waste in her hometown of Miami and became involved with FoodAssist to continue her passion when she arrived at the University.
This year, the club has about 30 active student volunteers who live both in and out of the Charlottesville area, and last semester, FoodAssist volunteers collected and distributed 642 pounds of food mainly from Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority — nearly 400 more pounds than in fall 2019 and the most of any semester yet.
The organization is part of the Food Recovery Network — a national coalition of college and university students who collect excess food and distribute it to those in need. FoodAssist’s mission is to “bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity,” according to Damir Hrnjez, FoodAssist president and third-year Engineering student.
“We try to tackle two birds with one stone,” Hrnjez said. “There are a lot of those that are in need of food and then there’s a lot of excess food, in particular from the U.Va. community, so we try to take that excess food and give it to those that need it.”
Hrnjez and Kristin Blake, FoodAssist’s treasurer and third-year McIntire School of Commerce student, have been involved in FoodAssist since their first years and were part of the club’s first leadership team. Hrnjez joined FoodAssist to help directly combat food waste and insecurity, which he said “was always something that bothered [him] in [his] community and also all across the world.” Blake became a member after attending an interest meeting, eventually helping to get the club certified as a CIO.
Before the pandemic, Blake and Hrnjez said that Computers4Kids, a mentorship and tutoring program for Charlottesville youth, was a large recipient of food donations. However, Computers4Kids isn’t currently holding in-person meetings, so FoodAssist volunteers now bring all donations to The Salvation Army, which distributes meals to community members who are quarantined, infected with and recovering from COVID-19.
To operate safely throughout the University’s ban on in-person gatherings, FoodAssist volunteers continue to follow public health protocol — including mask-wearing and having only one person drive to pick up and deliver food at a time. Three pickups occur at designated afternoon times each week, and volunteers spend 30 to 45 minutes collecting, driving and delivering the food per pickup.
FoodAssist’s current food donors are the Alpha Phi sorority house and the Observatory Hill dining hall — the latter having just started a partnership again this month with FoodAssist, according to Sarah Gordon, marketing manager for the University’s food service supplier Aramark. In the past, FoodAssist has collected from other Greek houses, such as Kappa Delta and Kappa Kappa Gamma.
“FoodAssist is able to work with us to take excess food made due to overproduction and provide it to organizations that help our community,” Gordon said. “We are looking forward to bringing this program to fruition and contributing to increased food security in our community.”
Hrnjez said the club used to collect from the Observatory Hill dining hall in 2019, but its partnership fell through at the beginning of the pandemic.
According to Gordon, food waste from 2018 to 2021 — including anything that is composted — among University dining halls and dining retail locations has fluctuated between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds and mainly includes inedible parts of produce. With many students utilizing to-go options, food waste in the compost bins is less than usual this semester.
Food waste is anything that is inedible, while excess food — which FoodAssist distributes — is a result of overproduction and meets U.Va. Dining’s quality standards for safe consumption.
The remainder of the dining hall food that isn’t donated to FoodAssist is composted by Black Bear Composting. Gordon said U.Va. Dining follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, which emphasizes actions to prevent food waste and feed those in need, with composting and sending food to landfills as the least preferred methods for disposing of food.
U.Va. Dining uses a program called LeanPath to track food waste, which breaks down food waste by location, type of food waste and reason for loss. Though Gordon said “it is nearly impossible to predict exactly the right amount of food to prepare each day,” dining halls try to minimize overproduction and predict food consumption levels with menu planning.
Sophie Tran, FoodAssist’s outreach director and second-year College student, said that Campus Cooks — a company that supplies food to some Greek houses — began distributing pre-packaged meals to sororities because of pandemic sanitation concerns. These individually packaged meals can make it safer for sororities to donate leftovers, when compared to donating food in trays, because of reduced chances for contamination.
Tran and Blake noted that potential donors have been hesitant to donate during the pandemic due to fears of possibly spreading the virus, but FoodAssist operates under the Good Samaritan Law, which states that those in good faith who supply emergency assistance aren’t subject to liability if they cause damage.
Volunteers can help restaurants, buffets and other food-supplying services mitigate their food waste and those interested in donating food to FoodAssist can email Hrnjez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We are basically that intermediate that can help [food services] to do the work that not a lot of restaurants or even resources have the time to do,” Tran said. “We have a multitude of resources in terms of students that are willing to sign up for pick ups every week.”