Lunch had just ended inside the cafeteria of Harvard University’s Annenberg Hall. Trays full of chicken, noodles and snow peas remain, and Motoy Kuno-Lewis was making sure none of it will go to waste. Each week, he and other student volunteers package 1,200 pounds of leftovers into microwaveable frozen meals.
Kuno-Lewis, who studies environmental science, said he got involved because decaying food creates methane gas, one of the leading causes of climate change. But there’s another reason for the repackaging.
“Food insecurity is an issue and it’s a very pertinent issue, even in an area like Cambridge, which I think a lot of people have this vision is somewhere that doesn't have systemic economic differences that other areas do,” Kuno-Lewis said.
It’s an issue that affects one in 10 people in Massachusetts, according to a 2016 study by Feeding America, a disparity that is magnified by the fact that Americans throw out 150,000 tons of food a day, a study conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers found earlier this year. That’s about one pound of food per person.
Food For Free, a Cambridge-based food rescue organization, launched this initiative with Harvard and Tufts University. After the students seal and label the meals, they are delivered to local community colleges in a freezer van.
MassBay Community College in Wellesley gladly accepts these deliveries. Food For Free's meals are part of a campus-wide initiative to address food insecurity, which affects over half the school’s population, said Maxwell Morrongiello, a member of the food insecurity committee of MassBay’s student government.
“That could mean people aren't getting enough food, simply aren't able to afford food,” Morrongiello said.
Morrongiello said he also grabs a microwaveable meal for himself a couple times a month. He said these meals help him make ends meet.
“I haven't really suffered from hunger," he said. "There's people here who are hungry ... [and] really don't have access to food at all.”
Students can swing by four days a week and pick up frozen meals free of charge, no questions asked.
Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free, hopes to make this a model other schools and companies will adopt.
"This is something that a university in western Mass., in Worcester, a corporation could do," Purpura said. "It enables them not only to stop throwing out perfectly good food, it lets them engage their student population, their employee population, in group volunteering activities, in giving back to their community."
Food For Free also picks up unserved food from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and packages up to 450 meals a day, four days a week, at a local kitchen. They deliver these meals to Bunker Hill and North Shore community colleges, in addition to some elementary schools and food pantries. Purpura said other schools want to receive meals from Food For Free, but need different things to be able to participate.
"It's very easy for us to package up and hand over, 'Here's how you create these meals,'" Purpura said. "In terms of distribution, there are challenges with schools that we've worked with in them having the resources to figure out, 'How do I do this? Where do I put a freezer?' Or, 'How do I get a freezer, how do I figure out what students can access these meals?' And these schools don't have a lot of additional resources and head space."
Nonetheless, Purpura said she and her staff are up to the challenge.
"It's insane we are throwing away tremendous amounts of food every day, tons and tons of edible food. And there are people next door, a block away, that aren't getting enough food," she said. "This happens everywhere. And it is one way to address that."