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Waste nothing: SmartCampus Challenge winners work to reduce food waste across campus

Wasted Opportunities team members pitch their sustainability project idea for collecting and distributing otherwise wasted food from dining locations on campus to those in need at the Smart Campus Challenge pitch event Feb. 16. Credit: Anna Ripken | Lantern Reporter

When Danny Freudiger first heard about Wasted Opportunities, he wasn’t quite sure what to think.

He was behind the idea of eliminating food waste, but didn’t know much about the operation or how exactly he could help. The team at Wasted Opportunities had contacted him — a graduate student in mechanical engineering — about helping with data collection.

Freudiger agreed to meet some members at the Ohio Union for a cursory conversation about how he could help.

But 15 minutes into their conversation, Mike Fackler, team captain of Wasted Opportunities, realized a better option was right around the corner; one of the team’s runs to pick up food from campus cafes was finishing up and Fackler could show Freudiger the fruit of their labor.

When Freudiger saw the sheer amount of food in the back of the golf cart — boxes full of bagels, fruit bowls and premade salads — he was on board.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Freudiger said. “I went and had a conversation with them and saw them actually bring one of the carts in and saw this was really something.”

The Wasted Opportunities team has been working on reducing food waste across Ohio State’s campus for 18 months, and recently won the SmartCampus challenge hosted by Ohio State Energy Partners in February and are far from done with their work.

Serendipitous. That’s how the team describes its formation.

Wasted Opportunities was the team name used for the SmartCampus challenge, but it is born from the student organization Food Recovery Network.

For Fackler, joining the group was natural. He had been involved with food waste elimination efforts since he was a student at Loveland High School, where he served on the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council. During his time with the food policy council, he met Brian Roe, faculty adviser for Food Recovery Network at Ohio State.

This was not the case for TJ Kirby and Michael Scherping. The two are members of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at Ohio State and noticed the amount of food going to waste in Greek life. They wanted to look for a way to solve that problem. After calling around, they were sent in the direction of Food Recovery Network and Fackler.

Little did they know that Fackler was getting ready to pledge the same fraternity.

Although they were not able to tackle the Greek life problem right away, the three decided to work together, and just like that, all three were part of Food Recovery Network.

“Just identifying problems and fixing them. I’m a mechanical engineer; it’s our job,” Kirby said. “Michael and I both were just very angry about how much food we threw away.”

At the time — August 2017 — the group was making one-off pickups of leftover food from locations around Columbus.

Fackler approached the group’s then-president Stephanie Lee with an idea to expand. Fackler thought moving the food pickups to campus could make them more frequent and would also help members like himself who did not have a car to become more involved.

Given the go-ahead, Fackler, Kirby and Scherping began spearheading the effort to expand on campus and quickly set up a meeting with Ohio State Dining Services.

From the first meeting with dining services, things moved fast and easily. Ohio State was ready to engage the group on how to reduce their food waste.

In fall 2017, the group started a pilot program with pickups from KSA, Oxley’s To Go and Oxley’s By The Numbers. From there, they would deliver it to one of a few locations, including Star House, St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral and Faith Mission.

But one thing was still holding the group back — they were using their own cars, and couldn’ t maneuver around campus to make pickups from cafes. However, in a meeting in December 2017 to assess the first semester of operations, that problem was solved.

“We’re like, ‘I wish we could do the cafes, but we can’t send cars,’” Fackler said. “Michael [Scherping] had just been sitting there quietly the entire time and he goes, ‘At the Union, there’s these things called the gym cars you can rent out and take them for whatever you need.’”

The group worked out the details throughout spring 2018, and in fall 2018 — now with golf carts in tow — the current form of the Food Recovery Network was born.

The group now makes pickups five times a week from seven to nine different locations, amounting to 420 pounds of food a week with a caloric value that is enough to feed 12 people three meals a day.

With a smooth system under their belts, the members started looking forward. This is when they searched for help with their data collection. On the recommendation of Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, an Ohio State professor, they reached out to Danny Freudiger.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to give this data solution while also handling the donation of food to hungry people.”—Mike Fackler, team captain of Wasted Opportunities

The group was keeping track of data by hand, but this wasn’t possible when it was raining, and the calculations couldn’t be precise because they couldn’t go through boxes of food by hand to count everything — handling the food meant it couldn’t be donated.

So Freudiger came up with an app where the cafes could put together an “order,” as if they were shopping on Amazon. The cafe workers add items ready to be donated to their cart. Once they’re done, they place the order and Food Recovery Network is notified.

From there, the group can head out knowing exactly which locations have food available for pickup and how much. Then once the food is dropped off, the destination and completion are noted in the app.

This allows the group to see exactly how much business it is doing, but more importantly, it lets the cafes see a breakdown of food being donated, where it is going and how many people it is feeding. Everything from caloric information of donated food to its monetary value is tracked.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to give this data solution while also handling the donation of food to hungry people,” Fackler said.

But there was one catch: funding was needed to get the app made.

In addition, the golf cart was open-air, which was neither good for winter collection nor keeping food safe from the rain.

An improved golf cart and an app would cost money and that’s where the Smart Campus Challenge came in.

The Smart Campus Challenge hosted by Ohio State Energy Partners is a venture capitalist-style student sustainability competition that encouraged students to pitch and sell their ideas on sustainability and offered Wasted Opportunities, as the winning group, $54,000 in funding and a trip to Paris for a sustainability conference.

The challenge was never about winning a competition for the group; it was always about the crucial amount of funding that could be won and the group’s mission.

That’s why at the end of their presentation they told the judges, in unison, that not getting the money would be a “wasted opportunity.”

The judges must have agreed because the group took home first-place. They said they are looking forward to the Paris trip but are more excited about utilizing the money: $24,000 will go to a covered, heated golf cart with the remainder being spent on developing Freudiger’s app.

They admit the pun on the group’s name was cheesy, but the message behind it certainly was not.

“It makes sense. If you’re not donating, if you’re not tracking your data, you’re literally wasting money,” Freudiger said. “It’s a wasted opportunity.”

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