Eliminating Food Waste on College Campuses with Food Recovery Network’s Ben Simon

November 11, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and we’re so excited today to have Ben Simon on with us. He’s the founder and Executive Director of the Food Recovery Network. Welcome to Green is Good, Ben Simon. BEN SIMON: Hey, John. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is just an honor. You are one of the young sustainability superstars on this planet so we’re so excited to have you here. Before we get into your great website and what you’re doing with Food Recovery Network, first of all, I want our listeners to follow along. If you have a laptop, a tablet, a computer in front of you, go to Ben’s great website, FoodRecoveryNetwork.org. Ben, you’re still in college, man. How did you even come up with this idea? And talk a little bit about your childhood, your youth. Was this a dream of yours or was this something you thought up along the way? BEN SIMON: Yeah, absolutely. So, I am a senior at the University of Maryland – College Park and go Terps! JOHN SHEGERIAN: Go Terps! BEN SIMON: We started the program a couple of years ago in fall of 2011 and we basically just noticed really good delicious food from our campus dining hall going to waste at the end of the day and I personally have been involved with a lot of hunger and homelessness service projects out in the community. I knew there was a tremendous need in the DC area, PG County, where the school is located, and it was just a shame to see this really, really good food be going to waste while there’s people right down the street going hungry and so we got our friends together and we basically approached the campus dining hall and said, ‘Hey, is there any way we can feed people with this and not feed landfills?’ and so a few weeks later, we got the program up and running and it was amazing to see how much food we were donating right off the bat, 100 pounds, 200 pounds every single night, really good food, everything, and it was just amazing and from there, we’ve spread and now two years later, we’re at 23 college campuses across the country and we’ve donated over 165,000 pounds of food so far. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let me just ask this though because we have so many young listeners around the world. This is on Sirius XM, this show. This airs and then after that, it gets uploaded to the iTunes network and we get tens of thousands of downloads besides these listeners on Sirius XM, Ben, and there’s a lot of young people that want to follow in your footsteps. Talk about that part of the journey. Was mom and dad like greenies or was your grandpa or grandma or was there something in you? Were you born with some sort of sustainable DNA? How did this happen? BEN SIMON: Well, I’ve always loved the environment. I think everybody on my co-founding team not only cares about hunger but we care about the environment and we see the connection between them and all throughout high school, I’d been doing various things around the environment, helped my school save tons of money on energy just by cutting down the lights and also by revamping our high school’s recycling program and I’ve always cared about the issue, done whatever I could about the issue. I can’t believe our planet is in this state where it’s just kind of live or die with global warming. It’s honestly such a pressing issue in society and we really aren’t talking about it that much and treating it like it should be treated. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you talk about this planet. How big of an environmental issue is food waste and how much food goes to waste in the United States? BEN SIMON: Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues and one of the least talked about actually. A lot of people don’t know this, but food is actually America’s number one waste stream, the number one thing filling up landfills in America. Forty percent of the food in America ends up in landfills. It’s absolutely ridiculous, literally enough food every single day to fill the Rose Bowl football stadium so it’s a huge, huge issue and not only that but to talk about environmental impacts, when the food gets to the landfills, it gives off methane, as you probably know, which the EPA estimates is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and is this just a problem that’s inherent to the United States or is food waste an international problem? BEN SIMON: It’s absolutely a global issue. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website and again, for our listeners, you’ve got a beautiful website, Ben. It’s so easy to navigate and it’s chock full of information. It’s FoodRecoveryNetwork.org. What I see at the header on it, which I love, not only is your logo a cool logo, by the way, but it says here 166,354 pounds of food donated since the inception of your organization in September 2011. That’s incredible. BEN SIMON: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, what’s going on here? So, are there paradigms that you’ve learned from? Are other countries or other cities doing it better than we are doing it here and you’re taking notice of those and learning from them and bringing that methodology here or are you just learning this along the way since this is a road no one’s really traveled before here in America? How are you really putting this together? BEN SIMON: We’ve really sort of borrowed from a lot of really awesome organizations that have been out there for decades doing this great work, inspiring us. There’s City Harvest in New York City was one of the first food recovery programs, DC Central Kitchen in DC, and now Robert Ayer, who’s the Founder of DC Central Kitchen and a member of our advisory board is now moving out to LA to create a program out there. There’s Food Donation Connection. They’re actually one of the largest food recovery programs. Feeding America does a lot of great food recovery so we didn’t really invent food recovery. We basically just realized that almost every single college campus, and we estimate that over 75% of them are still throwing out all of their extra food, and so we noticed a huge gap in the market and at the same time, students obviously are so passionate. They care about the environment. We’re all environmentalists on college campuses and that this would be a pretty easy thing to spread. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So far since your inception, in two short years, you’ve landed already 23 colleges. BEN SIMON: Right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You have another year. You’re a senior this year. How many more college campuses do you think you can get in the next year or so? BEN SIMON: We have a goal of getting up to 75 colleges so just to keep going so for the past two years, we’ve been doing this completely volunteer run, me and about eight other co-founders or so have been working and they’ve all been at other college campuses all across the country so our main method has actually been video chat and we haven’t even met some of our co-founders in person. It’s crazy. But we actually just got a really major investment from Sodexo Foundation for $150,000 to go full time with this work and to basically spread this across the country so if we’ve been able to start 23 chapters in two years through volunteerism, I really hope we can start 52, which is our goal for this year, with a full time staff of four. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are there sustainability offices on these campuses now? Are colleges getting greener than ever? Is your generation on fire for sustainability and green like none other? Your senior class right now, is everyone really into it like you are? BEN SIMON: I wouldn’t say everybody, but I would say overall, it’s gotten better and better and almost every college campus that we work on does have a sustainability office and often, the sustainability officers can be some of our biggest allies to get a new program started on campus and can really help us get in the door with dining, who is eventually who we have to persuade, and I would say that food recovery is one of the single biggest things that college sustainability offices can do to advance sustainability that’s kind of untapped. There’s always increasing the recycling rates and composting and so much like that but we’re actually just in the middle of a huge impact metrics project to calculate exactly what our environmental impact is in terms of gallons of water, oil, our carbon footprint that we’ve reduced with food recovery but it’s already just proven to be just amazing in terms of the crazy environmental impact. So much goes into food to get it to where it is in the dining halls. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and what’s your ultimate goal when you get out of college? You’re going to stick with this? You’re going to stick with Food Recovery Network and continue to grow it? BEN SIMON: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m already full time now as a college student so our vision is to create Food Recovery Nation and we literally want to reach 1,000 college campuses on the next five years. We’ve been building some awesome national partnerships with Sodexo, with Bon Appetite, with some of these major college food service providers to basically get us kind of preapproved for all of the campuses they’re on. We’ve got this awesome growth plan, awesome staff we’re building so yeah, we’ve got this vision and we don’t want to stop at college campuses either. America has a huge, huge problem and we want to do what we can to fix it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about that, Ben. Talk about expanding past college campuses. Where would you go, then? What would be the next logical step after you get 1,000 colleges? Because I believe you will. BEN SIMON: Thank you, John. We have a few things going for us so right now, we’re actually working with Montgomery County, Maryland, which is where I’m based, to create one of the first county wide food recovery programs in the country and it’s kind of a pilot for us. Our core mission is on college campuses but we helped to inspire this other program, which has grown way beyond Food Recovery Network, this whole big effort, and it got funded for another $200,000 to create a county wide program in Montgomery County and if it’s successful, we’ve already talked to a few other neighboring country executives so we can go county by county that way and another big thing we want to do is to change a lot of these awful, awful corporate policies. I’ll tell you a little story. Our University of Maryland chapter where I go used to donate from Panda Express in the food court and it was going really, really great for a few months. We had donated hundreds of pounds of food. Awesome, everybody loved the program but then their corporate office heard about it and shut the program down because they, like many other corporations, have a national policy of not participating in food recovery, not because it’s a bad business decision because it’s actually a great business decision. They’re free from liability. They can get great tax write-offs, good PR. It’s a great business decision but they don’t know it is so we want to educate them and build up an advocacy force to challenge these corporate policies and basically create a new national norm of food recovery. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great. For our listeners out there, we’re down to the last three minutes or so, Ben, and we have lots of young listeners across America and across the world actually. How can they get involved? If they listen to this show and they hear you talking about this wonderful organization that you’ve created and co-founded, how can they get in contact with you and help grow the movement? BEN SIMON: Well, like you said, they can check out our website. The number one thing that they can do to advance this is to start a chapter at their college. It’s a pretty easy process. It takes anywhere between four to 10 weeks. That’s basically what we do is provide advice for college students. We’ve got a whole tool kit. We’ve got grants for them. We make it very, very easy for them to start a new chapter so to take this and to spread our movement, tell their friends about it, and get involved that way is really the number one way and we really, really need them. this whole vision that I’ve talked about really, they’re the heart and soul of it is the student out there that’s just hearing this and is like wow, this is cool. Let me tell my friends and get in touch with the Food Recovery Network. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, and for the young people out there that want to be the next Ben Simon, what advice do you have for young ecopreneurs in waiting that want to get up every morning and feel like they’re changing the world? BEN SIMON: I would say start today. Start today. Start now. Throw yourself into something that you care about. Learn as many lessons as you can and meet as many people as possible and think big. Go for really bold new ideas because you’re young and if it doesn’t work out, you can always wake up the next day and do something else. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great advice and for our listeners out there to learn more about Ben’s great organization, it’s FoodRecoveryNetwork.org. It’s just so full of great information and ways to connect with Ben and with also different chapters and how to even start a new chapter so FoodRecoveryNetwork.org. Ben Simon, the world needs more Ben Simons and I’m so honored to have you on today and we wish you the best of luck. We’re going to continue to cover your story and have you back on once you get out of college and once you continue to grow this great network that you’ve founded so please come back on Green is Good and share the story as it evolves. Ben Simon, you are an inspiring food recovery leader and truly living proof that green is good. BEN SIMON: Thank you so much for this opportunity to spread the word.