Students distribute uneaten campus meals
By Adam Polaski
A group of seven students are huddled around a counter in the empty, quiet kitchen of the Towers dining hall at Ithaca College. The students are spooning rice, pork and mixed vegetables into 30 disposable food containers while laughing and talking about their plans for the weekend. Several of the students are taking note of what kind of food is going into each container and writing this information onto labels. The process, efficiently organized due to weeks of practice, takes about 20 minutes before the students are stuffing the individually packaged meals, along with cups filled with salad and some of the day’s leftover sandwiches and wraps, into two large hot boxes. They then carry these into the trunk of a participant’s car, and have two representatives drive the meals down to the Freeville Food Pantry.
This is a typical Friday afternoon for the members of S.W.I.F.T., or Stop Wasting Ithaca’s Food Today. The organization, now in its third, most active year, packages meals out of leftover food that was prepared and cooked–but not served–almost every Friday at the Towers Dining Hall. They then drive the 30-40 meals down to local food pantries, including the Freeville and Danby food pantries. Ten to 12 students are active contributors to the organization.
“S.W.I.F.T. helps to make the campus more sustainable, and you’re giving a hot meal to someone,” said Kevin Michels, IC sophomore and vice president of the organization. Last month, S.W.I.F.T. became an officially registered club. Previously the operation was part of a project coordinated by several of IC’s Leadership Scholars.
The members of S.W.I.F.T. would like to expand their operation to other days and other dining halls in order to contribute more to the food pantries. “We are limited in our amount to give,” said President Katie Venetsky, a junior who has been with S.W.I.F.T. since its inception, citing that although the pantries to which her organization donates appreciate the food, there remains a large population in the Ithaca area that goes hungry. According to a 2007 article in The Ithaca Journal, between 1996 and 1998, nearly nine percent of households in Tompkins County suffered from “food insecurity,” or the risk of going hungry. The levels of poverty in the county are also rather high compared to the rest of New York. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 19.2 percent of the people in Tompkins County lived below the poverty line, compared to 13.8 percent in New York.
What is distinctive about the poor in Tompkins County, Michels explained, is that for the most part, it is a very “invisible” poverty. “You don’t see the level of deprivation,” he said. “These people have houses–they may even have working jobs–and you don’t see that they’re barely getting by. It doesn’t get nearly enough attention.” Venetsky explained that most of the impoverished are the rural poor, and they suffer in part because of their largely seasonal, agriculture-focused employment, which leaves them with limited income in the off-season. “We don’t see it because we’re in our little Ithaca College bubble, and we don’t notice it,” she said.
Recently, however, as the economy continues to tank and people continue to lose their jobs, poverty in our community has become far more visible. Attendance at local food pantries has risen drastically. The Danby Food Pantry, which distributes monthly to families, used to provide food for an average of 40-50 families, or approximately 100 people. In March, however, 89 families, or nearly 200 people, were served, said Venetsky.
This obvious demand for food is part of the reason it is so distressing how much food more fortunate people waste. Food waste is especially high among college students, since many of them primarily eat from buffet-style dining halls, where essentially an unlimited amount of food is available. Jeff Scott, director of dining services at IC, reported that on average throughout the U.S., at university dining programs with similar buffet systems, each “customer” wastes about a third of a pound of food with each meal.
On-campus food waste is a little less bleak at IC, since the dining halls compost most of the wasted food. The college began composting on a small scale in 1992, but in 1998, it expanded to compost almost all of the food scraps created and collected on campus. These comprehensive composting programs are slowly becoming the norm for college dining programs.
While composting certainly has environmental benefits, it is not helpful in addressing the issue of local hunger. That’s where S.W.I.F.T. has been able to contribute, and that’s why the leaders of the group want to expand.
S.W.I.F.T. has not officially approached Scott and others from Dining Services with a proposal to expand to other locations, but the organization is looking to focus more on this in coming weeks. Scott acknowledged several potential logistical problems that could arise from the group packaging on other days; but ultimately, he said, “It’s not to say that it couldn’t be expanded…We would just need to make considerations. We’d have to revisit what the mission is–the mission of S.W.I.F.T., the mission of dining services and the mission of hunger relief.”
For now, the small, but dedicated S.W.I.F.T. crew will continue packaging and delivering meals on Fridays. On this particular Friday in late March, Venetsky drives the meals to the Freeville United Methodist Church, which distributes food on the second and fourth Monday of each month. On S.W.I.F.T. delivery days, however, community members who have expressed interest in receiving the additional meals can come to the church to pick these up from the food salvage program.
Michael Aiken, who works at the pantry, said he has definitely seen an increased attendance in recent months. The bi-weekly distribution days, which used to draw 35-40 families, have recently fed close to 55 families. Aiken also remarks that while prior to the economic downturn most of the pantry’s recipients were the elderly, new attendees are generally young mothers and fathers, many of whom have recently lost their jobs.
Several mothers and fathers, representing families of four or five, file into the church to pick up meals from S.W.I.F.T. As they leave, clearly relieved to have one less meal to worry about purchasing, Venetsky re-packages the rest of the hot meals and salads into individual plastic bags, which Michael will soon deliver to the homes of the hungry elderly who cannot drive to the church.
S.W.I.F.T., the epitome of the adage that “every little bit counts,” will continue operating its food salvage program, and as long as hunger prevails in rural towns less than ten miles from Ithaca College’s campus, there will always be demand for its services. On the drive back from Freeville, Venetsky reflects with obvious passion and belief in the mission of her organization, “We do what we can…we do what we can.”
Adam Polaski is a freshman journalism major. E-mail him at apolask1[at]ithaca.edu.