How University of Maryland alumni are fighting food waste one pound at a time

By Jamie Weissman

Senior staff writer

With two dining halls, Stamp Student Union and a variety of cuisines offered on Route 1, it’s clear that College Park is well fed. However, all this food brings a lot of waste.

When Ben Simon, Mia Zavalij and Cam Pascual were undergraduates at the University of Maryland, they were stunned by how much food the dining hall staff was throwing away. Determined to fight hunger and use what the dining halls didn’t, they teamed up to form Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit organization that unites college campuses across the country in fighting hunger by donating recovered food to partnering agencies.

“Food waste is a huge issue and it’s an issue people weren’t talking about four years ago or 10 years ago,” Simon said. “But now we’re talking about it much more because it is such an important issue. It’s one of our largest environmental challenges.”

Today, this food repurposing movement has spread to more than 150 collegiate chapters in 37 states. Since the nonprofit’s launch in 2011, the nationwide effort has helped to recover and donate 944,244 pounds of food to local shelters and organizations, according to Food Recovery Network’s website.

Due to the organization’s rapid growth in the four years since it started, Pascual, now the director of innovation, is working to establish a food recovery certification program that will allow their program to expand beyond higher education.

“There’s a lot of buzz around food recovery and so the certification program helps businesses get the word out to their customers about the program that they have,” Pascual said. “[B]ecause if you think about food recovery as a national shift, a shifting of pretty ingrained cultural norms, there are two stages to it: awareness and implementation.”

As Food Recovery Network continues to grow, Simon is now focusing his attention on a new venture. Since leaving the organization about a year ago, he has become the CEO of Imperfect Produce, a company devoted to recovering unused produce in California.

“I was at Food Recovery Network and exploring different innovative opportunities to reduce food waste and came across this issue of ugly produce and found out six billion pounds of fresh produce is being wasted every single year,” Simon said.

“At first, I couldn’t really believe it,” he added. “It just seemed too much, seemed unbelievable especially since produce is something that’s fairly easy to recover and something that there’s such demand for.”

While embarking on this new endeavor, Simon hadn’t forgotten his roots from his days at this university.

He says that he plays a “supporting role” in Food Recovery Network, which is now in the midst of planning a conference at the university for the organization’s 300 student leaders nationwide, complete with food waste and recovery experts from non-governmental organizations and nonprofit businesses.

“We love Maryland and we’re doing a lot of great stuff with Maryland,” Pascual said. “I think a lot of our success as a start-up can be attributed to the infrastructure and support that Maryland has. It is just such a friendly entrepreneurial environment that we were able to get so much help in developing business plans, support from professors, and in general just feeling a sense of empowerment and ability to be able to really make this happen.”

Until the upcoming event, both Food Recovery Network and Imperfect Produce plan to continue their goal of taking action against hunger in America.

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