The rush begins shortly before noon, when approximately 500 students, faculty, and administrators arrive at Marina Dining Hall for lunch. About 40 minutes later, the exodus from the dining room begins. Diners return to classrooms and offices, and no one, it seems, gives a second thought about the food that’s left behind.
Except for student Michael Asmerom and UB Dining Services General Manager Tony DeLuca.
The two became friends when Asmerom was asked to serve as the Student Government Association dining liaison. His job: to tell Sodexo Dining Services, which is under the direction of DeLuca, what students like about the food at UB and what they’d change. Their respective duties as dining manager and meal ambassador gave the two plenty of time to think about the surplus food at Marina Dining Hall: unneeded, unserved, and headed to the dumpsters.
“I just thought someone else could use it,” said Asmerom.
So did DeLuca. He told Asmerom about Food Recovery Network, a consortium made up of Sodexo, other food providers, and approximately 180 U.S. schools that donate food to organizations that help those in need. After talking to DeLuca, Asmerom recruited fellow student Quantasha Brown to help start a Food Recovery Network Club at UB. It launched in February 2016.
Now, as it approaches its one-year anniversary, the club has much to celebrate. Student members have collected over 1600 pounds of food, making a much-needed and positive impact on homeless and financially vulnerable individuals living in Bridgeport. All too often, they include the elderly and children, say experts at organizations like End Hunger Connecticut. According to that nonprofit, the city has some of the highest hunger indices in the state, and children are particularly vulnerable to food shortages. More than eight out of 10 students in the city’s schools participate in the School Breakfast Program. Nearly all—99 percent—of Bridgeport students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
“Until I did research and started talking with Michael, I had no idea how many people and children needed food in Bridgeport,” said Brown. “It’s been really rewarding to help.”
Each Tuesday evening, about a dozen student club members meet a Sodexo employee at Marina Dining Hall to weigh, wrap, and label trays of surplus food and individual, meals like sandwiches and apples, oranges and other fresh fruit. They load the week’s take into a car and personally deliver it to United Church of Christ on Park Avenue.
“It’s really made an impact,’ said Rev. Tracy Hughes. “Since we started getting food from UB, we have served over 1960 people and provided more than 2000 meals from our pantry.”
The food is distributed within 24 hours of delivery. Trays of hot meals, from roasted vegetables to lasagna, or ethnic favorites like chicken tikka masala, are packaged into single-serving containers for individuals to take on the go. Cold snacks, sandwiches, or desserts are available, too.
The church pantry relies on staples like canned goods and boxes of pasta, so the weekly donation from UB, which may include fresh fruit or homemade baked bread, “adds variety, increases the amount of nutritious meals we try to offer, and gives neighbors an opportunity to select something special,” said Hughes. “It’s always a big hit.”
DeLuca and the students say they never know which dishes from UB will go unused. But they agree the deliveries add a nice mix. “It’s made me look at food differently,” said Asmerom. “The homeless were so grateful for it. It’s so humbling.”
DeLuca agreed. “People on my staff and the students want to know what more they can do,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic partnership.”