By Spencer Robinson ‘20
In the last installment of his three-part blog series, Spencer Robinson connects Stanford’s dining system to that of nearby communities like East Palo Alto, and investigates what SSS’s own food project group is doing to bridge the gap in food access.
I rush into Ricker dining hall at the last minute and give a cheeky smile to the staff member who swipes me in. Catching my breath, I’ll grab a plate and hurriedly heap onto my plate my favourite dishes before the the staff take the full trays of steaming supper away. Pause. Full trays? At the end of dinner? You might think it a pity to discard all the carefully prepared dishes away. Fortunately, Ricker is actually one of several contributors of food donations on campus along with other dining halls and cafes, as well as some student events. SSS’s Food Group is working to institutionalize a more environmentally efficient and socially just way of using surplus food. To investigate more details of food redistribution on campus, I interviewed Erin Pang; one of the project coordinators of SSS’s food group to learn more about her motivations, current projects, and future aspirations.
Erin told me that several members of the Food Group have a personal connection to their work. A few of the members have worked in homeless shelters before, providing meals for patrons there. For instance, Ella (one of the team members) had experience growing and distributing fresh produce to people of lower-income communities in Brooklyn where fruits and veggies were lacking. Erin shared that “food is such a fundamental need for humans to live,” and there is certainly something special about sharing a meal with someone who needs one. Along with other socioeconomic inequalities come inequalities in access to healthy food. Feeling dissatisfied with “the stark contrast” in terms of food access here at Stanford compared to that in East Palo Alto among other neighborhoods, Erin got involved. Erin partners with Chris LeBoa to run SSS’s food project group, and their largest program is to recover unused food from Stanford’s dining halls and cafes and redistribute it to communities in need.
The Food Group works with SPOON - the Stanford Project on Hunger - in their food recovery program. SSS does a lot of the coordination with dining hall managers and cafe managers, while SPOON provides volunteers on a more consistent basis. Though daily collection of food on campus is difficult, the Food Group regularly takes donations from Ricker, Wilbur, Stern, Schwab and Branner dining halls; and the Russo, Law School and the Faculty Club Cafés. In the future, the SSS food group hopes to institutionalize the system so that all leftover food from the dining halls is donated without student involvement, perhaps by having one of the food bank programs come to Stanford to collect the food itself. Paid staff or interns working regularly on organizing food donations would certainly increase the amount of food that we donate as a campus.
Something else that Food Group does is to develop and distribute flyers and informational booklets about how to better manage food waste. They also do dorm waste trainings to try to change waste behavior by education. Reducing waste is far from intuitive and both student behavior and dining hall policies could do with some change after some consideration of the importance of using our food privileges responsibly.
While the dining halls and cafes are the places that create the most food waste, Erin pointed out that it would also be good for leftovers from student events to be donated. To that end, Food Group has been cooperating with the ASSU and the Office of Sustainability to form guidelines to encourage student organizations to donate food. Some faculty events already follow a set of criteria to reduce waste. Generally, any foodstuffs left out for less than two hours can be brought to the Haas Center freezer to be donated.
Yet the SSS Food Group’s aims span beyond their actions on campus. Erin wants to address the “root causes” of a lack of food access. Her plan is to learn more about the difficulty of food accessibility, and work to fill that “need gap” in cooperation with Collective Roots and other non-profits. Currently, Food Group goes to work days at Collective Roots to maintain their gardens. However, they are also working on an infographic to spread information about where healthy and affordable food can be found in East Palo Alto. Erin also expressed interest in starting community gardens at schools and expanding the network. While the gardens here at Stanford are here for aesthetic purposes, research, and supplemental food for some dining halls, in East Palo Alto they are primary source of fresh produce for many people.
Clearly, there is still a lot to be done about expanding access to healthy and sustainable food. But I’ve found it inspiring how such a small group of students have built connections with other student organizations and determinedly worked to execute their initiatives and make impactful change.
The issues I’ve discussed in this three-part series include problems with the access, distribution and wasteful disposal of food. Working to combat these problems involves consideration of both environmental and social issues because they are inextricably linked. My hope is that the stories of compassionate and motivated individuals working in nonprofit organizations, in retail restaurants and in student organizations have managed to inspire you to reassess your role in this local food system at Stanford and in its surrounding communities.
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.