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Student Volunteers With the Food Recovery Network Fight Waste and Feed People
After the dining centers close, as most students are scattering back to their residence halls, to the library to study or toward other late-night activities, volunteers with the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a student organization comprising members from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and Syracuse, spring into action.
The premise of their work is simple: to recover as much leftover, untouched food as possible from on-campus dining centers and deliver it to its eight partner agencies located throughout the greater Syracuse community. In 2021, FRN volunteers recovered 21,985 pounds (almost 11 tons!) of food, contributing around 18,320 meals to neighbors in need.
The organization’s president, Adri Virag ’25, says she got involved with FRN during her first year at Syracuse after observing the contrast between campus and nearby city neighborhoods. “One of the first things I did when I arrived in Syracuse was bike around the areas surrounding campus. I was surprised by the extreme disparity between University Hill and other parts of the city,” she says. She sought to educate herself about food insecurity and food deserts in different neighborhoods around Syracuse and was moved to action.
“I worked at Graham Dining Center at the time, and it was tough to see trays of good food that had to be thrown away at the end of the day,” she says. “Eventually, a colleague, Shallythaw Da, and I got to figuring out how to move the food to the local neighborhoods that needed it.”
This led Virag to learn that the Food Recovery Network, a national organization with chapters on over 180 college campuses across the United States, was already active on the Syracuse and SUNY ESF campuses. Within a couple weeks, recoveries were set up every day of the week at Graham with the help of volunteers from Campus Connect, a student organization overseen by the Lutheran Campus Ministry.
“I absolutely love the process of a Food Recovery run, and how practical it is,” Virag says. “You show up to the dining hall with friends, pack food and deliver it directly to shelters or churches. There, you learn where the food is going and connect with those receiving it.”
Today, Virag serves as the organization’s president, spending about seven hours a week on FRN to ensure that it’s expanding in a balanced way and supporting its e-board members—Elliot Salas ’24, vice president and dining center coordinator; Kara Mueller ’23, volunteer coordinator; Allison Schwartz ’25, social media; Kelsey Bares, agency coordinator (SUNY ESF); Lauren McNamara ’21, G’22, treasurer; and Zander Leff ’25, secretary.
She says her focus this year has been to expand the number of agencies FRN donates food to. Its network of partners experienced some minor setbacks during the COVID pandemic as a number of agencies dwindled in capacity and stopped accepting hot food donations for a time. “I scoured Syracuse for new organizations to accept recoveries,” Virag says. “We knew there were hungry people out there, it was just a matter of finding places to distribute the food.” These partners consist of shelters, rehabilitation facilities, women’s homes, food pantries and church communities.
That is how the group connected with the Greater Southside Neighborhood Association, a young food pantry started by a retired New York Police Department officer that provides boxed meals to anyone who stops by. “Their founder, Jackie Lasonde, is one of the most inspiring people I’ve met in Syracuse. She moved here recently, but she knows everything about Syracuse, and stays up late to help pack any recovery that we bring in,” Virag says.
This semester, FRN has had more than 80 active volunteers who work a combined total of around 100 hours per week, in addition to support from dining center staff and partner agencies. As the FRN continues to expand, the organization is always looking for more people from the campus community to get involved. Volunteers can consist of a group of friends, or student organizations on campus looking to give back.
“Since broadening our agency network, we now have the capacity to cover every day of the week, from every dining hall,” Virag says. “We need six more runs covered, or around 30 more volunteers. We have a particular need right now for drivers, but anyone with or without a car is welcome to join!”
Virag and several other e-board members are studying architecture, so there is lots of connectivity between FRN and the School of Architecture. Recently, 20 volunteers affiliated with the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students (NOMAS) helped recover an additional 537 meals on top of FRN’s typical weekly schedule, showing the power of how extra hands can make a big difference. Virag says many of the NOMAS volunteers expressed how eye-opening the experience was for them. “Their reactions revealed to me our role in creating experiences that can have a profound influence on people’s sense of citizenship.”
Angela Noon, Food Services manager at Graham Dining Center, is the staff advisor to the group and helps coordinate with other dining center managers to ensure that collections run smoothly for FRN volunteers and troubleshoot any concerns that may arise.
“We have families and individuals in need of nutritious meals right here in Syracuse,” she says. “We are fortunate to have an abundance of healthy and delicious food in our dining centers that can help cover the gaps in the community. FRN is an opportunity for students and other volunteers to build involvement and connectivity within our community and find common ground with each other.”
Those interested in volunteering with FRN should email Zander Leff at firstname.lastname@example.org; shifts begin every day of the week at 8 and 9 p.m. and take up to two hours. To learn more about the organization’s incredible work, follow the FRN on Facebook or Instagram.