Free food initiative considers student feedback

By SIRI TUMMALA | March 8, 2018

In Spring 2017, the Free Food Waste Remediation Initiative launched at the Spring Open House and Overnight Program (SOHOP). The program alerts students of free food leftover from campus events and has amassed almost 2,000 subscribers. 

Noah Erwin, who graduated in 2016, came up with the program as a way to reduce food waste on campus. Erwin met with Leana Houser, the recycling manager of Hopkins, to expand upon the idea. 

Houser worked with Nemo Kelle, who graduated in fall 2016, to perform a feasibility study to find out if the University needed the program and to figure out an appropriate alert system.

Keller researched technologies that could support the initiative. She is currently working on expanding the program to other Hopkins campuses. 

Houser described a couple of issues that she and Keller are still working to resolve. She explained that most people on the fall semester surveys indicated that they wanted to have text notifications instead of emails, but there are some technical difficulties in implementing text notifications.

Houser explained why text message alerts were not used when the program launched. 

“When people signed up, we gave them the option to sign up for texts, emails or for both,” Houser said. “We intentionally held back on activating the text option until the second semester because we wanted to see how things went with the emails and because it costs money to implement texting.” 

Another issue is not being able to quantify the impact that the Initiative has had on reducing food waste.

“We know people are happy with the program since we have done surveys,” she said. “But we have no way to measure the amount of food we have diverted and saved from being thrown away or the number of people who have actually shown up to get food.”

In the past, Keller and Houser would use the number of people who RSVP’d to each individual event on the Initiative’s website to gauge how many students were actually attending. However, not everyone who went to the events would RSVP. To address this issue, they are looking at using Google Analytics to take a closer look at how many people RSVP versus how many actually attend. 

Moreover, the Initiatve collaborates with other food providers on campus. 

“I meet with Bon Appetit, Dining and Housing every month, and they are very supportive of it. They love it because it’s less food the caterers have to bring back,” Houser said. 

Private caterers noticed that the Initiative used paper utensils and plates left over from other events. 

To address this problem, Keller and Houser decided to organize an event with free Insomnia cookies and free Tupperware containers. The event aimed to encourage people to use collapsible containers to limit the amount of paper goods used. 

Furthermore, users of the program feel that it has helped combat food insecurity on campus. Houser noted that 10 percent of survey participants say they use the program to get food when money is tight. 

“Most people from the outside would not think that there are some students at Hopkins who are food insecure but there definitely are,” said Houser. “We think it is more so in the graduate student population.”

Cassidy Quiros, a sophomore, works with the Initiative as the Homewood Recycling Food Waste Intern. While Keller continues to work on the technology aspect of the program, Quiros took over Keller’s role in coordinating the implementation and development of the initiative at Hopkins. 

“I feel like the process has been a lot of troubleshooting to get to this point. There has always been a lot of little problems throughout the whole process, and we have been able to figure out a lot of them,” Quiros said. “Free food alerts are going a lot more smoothly now that the technical problems were worked out.”

Sophomore Sara Nutter, described her motivation to subscribe to free food alerts.

“I care about the environment. I thought it would be a great way to contribute to reducing food waste,” she said.

Nutter hopes to be attend more free food events.

“There are a lot of events on campus during different times of the day where you can get free food, but it just hasn’t worked out,” she said.

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