Since August of 2015, more than two and a half tons of leftover food from Wagner’s dining hall did not go into the trash — the normal fate of leftover dishes.

Instead, most of this nutritious food was delivered to soup kitchens for New Yorkers in need. Whatever was no longer consumable was composted on campus.

Through Wagner’s student-run chapter of the national Food Recovery Network, volunteers “recover” the food after the dinner service twice per week. Dining hall staff provides the space for them to work and brings them trays of leftover food, which the students package for the soup kitchens or collect for composting. City Harvest, a New York City non-profit organization, picks up the food weekly for distribution to its Staten Island network of community food programs.

This effort started with Bernadette Ludwig, assistant professor of sociology and director of the civic engagement minor at Wagner. She learned about the Food Recovery Network in 2014 at a meeting of Project Pericles, a national consortium of colleges that promote civic engagement, and started talking it up in her classes.

One of her students, Kirsty Hessing ’18, helped Ludwig establish the Food Recovery Network program at Wagner College. A swimmer from Illinois majoring in behavioral economics, Hessing connected with the issues of food distribution, insecurity, and waste on a personal level. “As an athlete, I have always had an interest in food, especially nutrition,” she says. “I first became aware of these issues hearing athletes talk about how little they had to eat and how they need healthier options.”

Students stand at a counter, handling food and doing various activities to keep track of the recovered food.
The Food Recovery Network in action: left, co-leaders Allie Calascibetta and Kirsty Hessing weigh food and enter data into the computer; right, volunteers Qamar Mohammad Ayoub and Roofina Ali work on packaging the food.

To start the program, cooperation with the dining hall, which is operated by Compass Group, was essential. Dining Hall Manager Kathi Indelicato worked out the collection schedule with the chef. “It’s great that the students are involved, raising awareness,” she says. “We don’t want to waste any food, either.”

Evening shift supervisor Dawn Corbett emphasizes that the dining hall staff’s help is minimal. “The students do all the work!” she says.

Hessing and another student leader, Allie Calascibetta ’18, use a website called GivePulse to organize and schedule the volunteers, many of whom are in Wagner’s Bonner Leaders program or are members of Students of Wagner Going Green.

On the evening of April 19, for instance, six volunteers show up at the dining hall at 7:45 p.m. They have honed their system so that the work proceeds swiftly and accurately. Some of them transfer pans of sliced beets, mac and cheese, roasted potatoes, pierogi, salmon cakes, and pork into storage trays. One student creates labels, another weighs the trays, and the others calculate totals and enter data into an online form on the Food Recovery Network website.

Melanie is holding up a tray and transferring potatoes into a storage tray.
Food Recovery Network volunteer Melanie Rafael packages food to be distributed at Staten Island soup kitchens.

Within 45 minutes, the job is done. The dining hall staff will transfer the food into a designated refrigerator, from which City Harvest picks it up the next day.

This night, they recovered 41 pounds of food — a relatively low number, because the nightly total can reach as high as 100 pounds. But it’s enough for Calascibetta. “It’s still fighting waste, even if it’s just two trays of food,” she says.

An arts administration major, Calascibetta says she got inspired about this cause when she started volunteering and then attended the national Food Waste and Hunger Summit in 2016. There, she learned about composting and decided to start the composting initiative at Wagner.

The Wagner Food Recovery Network leaders have taken on other projects related to fighting waste, food insecurity, and poverty. They held a holiday food drive, for instance, for the Port Richmond High School food pantry, and they are working on recovery of reusable dorm room items that students don’t want or can’t take with them at the end of the year.

“Our initiatives on our campus are to work hard to save the planet little by little, as well as to spread the word and educate Wagner’s campus on the subject of food and environmental sustainability,” says Calascibetta.