A cart stacked with aluminum pans of food emerged from the cafeteria’s back door, swaying as it rolled down the ramp toward a nearby car. The trunk and back seat were quickly filled with these steamy dishes; penne noodles and Cajun chicken shifted under plastic wrap. One student hopped behind the wheel, another slammed the trunk shut, and they drove away unnoticed.
This was not the scene of some elaborate dining-hall heist orchestrated by starving college students. It is the bi-weekly routine of sophomore James Souder, often joined by first-year Brandon Waggy and others from the Sustainable Food Initiative, to donate untouched cafeteria leftovers to Our Community Place.
This effort, now down to smooth routine, is the result of continued collaboration between students of SFI, dining hall director Bruce Emmerson, and staff at OCP. At the end of last fall semester, junior Rebekah* [last name omitted on request] approached Emmerson about the possibility of donating unused food to those who need it.
Rebekah said that her Walking Disciples dorm hall, and previous involvement with OCP, are what inspired her and others to become more aware of the excess food in the cafeteria. “So often, we think about going abroad to ‘help those in need,’ but there are people going hungry in the country and in this community.”
Last year, she and former student Lucas Schrock-Hurst protested wastefulness by taking plates from students in the cafeteria, and eating the leftovers before they could hit the trash. Emmerson stopped their demonstration for health reasons, but their passion made an impact, especially when they offered OCP donations as an alternative.
“Anyone that just criticizes without suggestion is not helpful, but almost every initiative we’ve done here has been student-driven, or at least a student idea,” said Emmerson over the sound of a floor cleaner whirring around the cafeteria. “And so when they come to me, it might be a little critical, but if they have an idea, I’m more than happy to try it.”
Back in Souder’s car, the food does not even have a chance to get cold before it arrives at OCP. Souder and Waggy quickly unload the pans into a large outdoor cooler, and head back to campus before their next classes.
Reflecting on the beginnings of this initiative, Souder said, “We didn’t have the right connections made yet.” Emmerson echoed this uncertainty in the planning stage. “I thought it was a good idea; we just needed to work out logistics.” Rebekah had a vision for what could happen. Emmerson had the resources. OCP had the need. Souder stepped up to provide the legwork.
“Sometimes when they come to me with an idea, it sounds a little overwhelming,” said Emmerson. Eventually, though, it can and often does become a reality. “I think it’s great that the students care, that they want to see change, and change in the right direction.”
Current environmental practices in EMU’s food services include trash sorting for composting, eliminating tray use, biodegradable paper products, and the Den’s reusable take-out containers. Even changes as small as replacing paper waffle-batter cups with reusable plastic ones, make a difference. Evidence of these changes is the few garbage cans now behind the cafeteria, compared to the large dumpster that once rested there.
This passion for change is what drives students such as Rebekah and Souder to be involved with challenging the university to think more carefully about what sustainability means.
“This is a meaningful use of our leftovers because we use the abundant resources and use them wisely,” said Rebekah. “We follow God’s teachings. Give to the poor. Hang out with the poor.” She sees this as impactful not only to those at the OCP supper table, but in her personal life as well, as connections are made throughout the community. “I think it is great to be a sustainable campus, but we should not get too caught up in it,” she continued. “We could make this entire campus sustainable, but there are still people hungry in our community.”
Both SFI and the dining hall have future plans for continuing to realize EMU’s sustainability commitment in tangible ways. The Sustainable Food Initiative hopes to plant at least ten donated apple trees on the hill behind campus. They are also in need of students to fill Souder and Waggy’s places next semester, as they leave for cross-cultural. Emmerson would like to incorporate more local foods in the cafeteria, but logistics pose a challenge. He mentioned that having a work-study student work on local food distribution would open up opportunities for local produce.
Rebekah recalled a statement made by Schrock-Hurst during their day of eating others’ leftovers. “The point is not whether us eating your leftovers is right or wrong or gross,” said Schrock-Hurst, “the point is, it is grossly unjust for our university to be throwing out large quantities of food when there are people just a few miles from here struggling to put food on the table. Let’s change.”
Reprinted from The Weather Vane, EMU’s student newspaper. Preliminary interview by Timothy Hartman.
*Rebekah’s first name is used by request.