By SARA ARTHURS
The University of Findlay often has food left over at its dining hall. The City Mission needs food to serve meals to its residents and drop-in diners. Putting the two together seemed like a natural fit to Tessa Brown, a junior at the university who founded the local chapter of the Food Recovery Network.
Each week since Feb. 18, Brown and a group of other student volunteers collect prepared, unserved food at the university and bring it to City Mission where cooks determine what they’re going to do with it. For Amy Brehm, one of the cooks, this is an exercise in creativity as she never knows what the students and City Mission’s other donors are going to bring for her to work with.
One time the students brought a large quantity of spinach soup. Brehm turned it into chicken Florentine. Another time she had chicken and marinara sauce, and made chicken parmigiana.
The Food Recovery Network is a national organization with chapters all over the country, in which universities form partnerships with organizations that help those in need. Locally, the partnership is with the Sodexho food service at the University of Findlay. The Findlay chapter, a project of Sigma Kappa sorority, recently reached the goal of 700 pounds of food donated to City Mission.
Brown had recently come back from living in East Africa for four months and was newly aware of how much food was wasted in the dining hall.
She had erroneously heard that the food couldn’t be donated because it was illegal or unsafe, but learned otherwise.
Brown said part of the Food Recovery Network’s mission is about education, letting people know that it is legal and safe to donate unused prepared food.
“When I read up on it, it just seemed so obvious,” Brown said.
A pre-veterinary major, Brown studied elephants and other large mammals in Kenya and Tanzania. While she was in Africa she saw farmers feeding hogs with compost. She came back determined to get the University of Findlay’s kitchen composting, but ended up deciding to pursue the Food Recovery Network project instead.
Phil Arnold, executive director of City Mission, said City Mission was at first concerned about food handling but learned more about it. There are specific time limits and rules about what temperature the food must be kept at, Brown said. And, since the Food Recovery Network partners with dining hall chains, the network is held to the same standard of the dining hall.
Brehm said all of City Mission’s cooks are Serve Safe certified, meaning they have gone through training and taken a test on required food times and temperatures to keep the food safe.
She said after Brown and the other volunteers arrive at City Mission in the evening she can get food into the freezer right away.
City Mission seldom buys food, spending less than $2,000 a year on groceries including paper products, Arnold said. It serves 20,000 to 30,000 meals each year relying almost entirely on donations. There is also a program where boxed food is given to people in need.
If a donation is received that can’t be used, such as produce that’s likely to go bad too quickly, they pass it along to farmers who in exchange give the mission their chickens and eggs.
City Mission has always relied on donations, but the donations through the university add a larger variety, Brehm said. She said they serve more food from different cultures.
“It expands what we can do,” she said.
She said her goal in the kitchen is not to make it seem like those eating there are getting someone else’s leftovers, but to create food that was made for them with care. She aims to show each person that “you’re valuable and you’re loved.”
Brehm started cooking as a volunteer at her church, St. Paul’s United Methodist, but said she has particularly enjoyed her work at City Mission.
“We have the most awesome volunteers,” she said.
Brehm gets creative with what she is given, such as making a sausage and potato dinner out of some donated breakfast sausage.
City Mission also receives a lot of desserts, she said. Panera Bread has donated cinnamon bagels which make excellent bread pudding.
Brown is transferring schools and will be attending Michigan State University next year. However, she is taking steps to make sure the Food Recovery network keeps going in Findlay. She will be leaving the chapter in the hands of her sorority, particularly Alyssa Ryerson, who is the chapter’s volunteer coordinator.
And Brown intends to continue the effort while at Michigan State.
Asked what she likes about the project, Brown replied, “Everything.” It helps people in need and is also good for the environment, she said.
Brown said she, Ryerson and the other volunteers “try to be very choosy” on what donations they bring in. Cooks at the university’s dining hall now will often set things aside especially for them, she said.
Brehm said she has enjoyed seeing “the excitement” Brown and the other students bring to the effort.
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