Four nights a week, a group of students gathers at Worcester Dining Commons right as it closes. Just before 8:45 p.m., Commonwealth Honors College sophomore Rachel Stelmach ’19 leaves her dorm in Maple in CHCRC to recover food left over from the day’s dinner. Stelmach and other student volunteers weigh the food, transfer it to thermal bags that keep it warm, and transport it to Craig’s Doors, a homeless shelter in Amherst near the UMass campus.
The UMass Amherst Food Recovery Network has a dual purpose: to help those who are hungry in Amherst and to promote sustainability by eliminating food waste on campus. Students who volunteer are making connections with each other, with UMass, and in the town of Amherst.
“What drew me to this was the connection to the community,” said Stelmach, who studies biochemistry and political science. Though there are dozens of volunteering opportunities at UMass, she said the Food Recovery Network empowers students to get involved in the community at the grassroots level. Each night Sunday through Thursday, volunteers get to see the impact their work is having by the number of trays of food that are saved, and by the number of people who are helped.
Stelmach said she has learned about herself and her future goals through volunteering, and that she has “come full circle” and realized her passion for healthcare and health policy. Through Food Recovery Network, she sees the impact that nonprofit organizations can have, and the importance of connecting people with their community resources. At general body meetings, Stelmach and other members of the executive board lead discussions where volunteers can “think out loud” about ways to improve their work. Currently, the group is exploring ways to expand and recover more food from UMass to serve more people in the community.
“At general body meetings, we’ll make a huge idea board with what we want to accomplish. Then, at executive board meetings, we’ll talk more realistically about the hurdles and how we can start to get the ball rolling.”
From start to finish, each recovery takes about 35 minutes, and students can volunteer as often as they would like to. “There’s a lot of flexibility for volunteers to pop in and out,” said Stelmach. “But there are also opportunities to get involved and really integrate into the community.” Though she often sees new faces at Worcester Dining Commons, she added that there is a core group of committed volunteers who return night after night. When Stelmach transferred into the Honors College as a sophomore, she started recognizing friends from Food Recovery Network around CHCRC.
“You tend to meet so many people, it really does become a network,” said Stelmach. “It feels like you’re always one connection away from knowing someone who’s helped out.”
Image Credit: Katherine Davis-Young for NEPR