This story was originally published in the Campus Times (2016).
It’s raining. Hard. Junior Hannah Chartrand waits in the doorway of the IT center, staring nervously at her phone.
“Eleni and Daniel are supposed to be here,” she says.
The bus for Whipple Park leaves in five minutes, a full half hour after everyone was supposed to meet in front of IT. Out of the four members who signed up to volunteer at the Swaraj Project community garden today, only two have shown.
There’s a hint of annoyance in Chartrand’s eyes, but two will make more of a difference than no one at all.
A small turnout is not out of the norm, however, as the Food Recovery Network (FRN) has only about ten active members, six of which are on the executive board.
Although the group is small, they are committed to tackling some big problems.
A national entity, FRN is the largest student movement working to combat food waste and hunger in the country. The UR chapter collects leftover food from the dining centers on campus and redistributes it to local food banks and soup kitchens.
According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of member food banks, food insecurity refers to the “USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”
In Monroe County alone, over 100,000 people are food insecure. That’s more than an eighth of the population.
“I don’t think a lot of students realize how much of a problem this really is,” Chartrand, president of the University’s FRN chapter, said. “On campus, we’re in our own little world and are shielded from what’s going on in the city.”
The goal of the Food Recovery Network at UR is to bridge this divide and bring about a greater awareness of food insecurity on campus.
This morning, the group—or, more accurately, Chartrand and general member Selena Angel—are headed to the Swaraj Project as part of Be The Change Day, a national day of service to foster strong community relationships.
The rain fortunately ceases as the bus pulls up to the apartments. A few other volunteers from Sigma Beta Rho emerge from the laundry room, where they had taken shelter.
“Hey, everyone!” Two smiling girls walk towards us from the parking lot. They’re fully equipped for a day of digging in the dirt. One carries a shoebox full of Johnny’s organic seeds and trowels. The other cradles a plastic bag overflowing with gardening gloves every color of the rainbow. She struggles to clasp her hands around the bag, which could probably supply 10 times the number of volunteers who actually showed up.
“I’m Siri,” she says, extending her hand. Gloves drop here and there as she goes around to greet everyone. “We’re so excited you all could make it.”
Siri Chillara, a junior chemical engineering major, started the Swaraj Project through a fellowship with the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence last year. After spending her first two years reveling in the fact that she could eat whatever she wanted, as most college students do, Chillara came to the realization that this diet wasn’t sustainable, for herself or for the environment.
“I started the Swaraj Project because I wanted to have access to fresh, local produce, something I believe [UR Dining Services] could use more of,” she explains.
Although the project is just starting out, Chillara hopes the garden will expand enough to provide local produce to the University’s dining halls as well as Rochester’s food-insecure households.
Many colleges have community gardens these days, and it is surprising Rochester hasn’t really followed suit.
Chartrand said that FRN used to have one by the Medical Center when the group first started in 2012, but it was hard to maintain with the constant flux of members and changes in the executive board.
“I was really excited when [Chillara] reached out to me and asked if FRN would like to help with this project,” Chartrand says. “I’ve wanted to get the community garden started back up, but it’s so hard with everything else we’re doing and with the small amount of members we currently have.”
Chartrand hopes this will be a year of successful recruiting, as it is apparent more members are needed in order to make a bigger impact. She has been in contact with the president of RIT’s chapter of FRN about how to attract more members.
“The RIT chapter has around 25 to 30 active members,” Chartrand says. “This enables them to do so much more.”
Recover Rochester, the RIT chapter, collects food from the campus’s three main cafeterias, averaging around 250 pounds of donations per week. UR’s chapter, on the other hand, tallies only about 50 to75 pounds.
That Recover Rochester has two years of experience over UR’s chapter of FRN offers hope that UR may rise to a similar level of achievement.
Chartrand’s main goal this year is to boost the number of active participants by making the group more recognizable on campus. Some of the ways she plans on doing so include hosting a speaker on campus next semester, ordering FRN stickers for more prominent branding, and hosting a sustainable dinner.
If the club starts to expand, there are some bigger projects it would like to tackle.
One is to partner with Flower City Pickers, a volunteer organization that collects leftover produce from vendors at the Public Market and redistributes it to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries around the area.
Chartrand would like to set up similar programs at the West Side and South Wedge markets and have FRN members gather and deliver the donations to St. Peter’s soup kitchen, an entity with which the club already has a sound affiliation.
FRN currently donates 100 percent of the food it collects to St. Peter’s, and, at least once a semester, sends members to help serve lunch to the 150 plus guests who come on a daily basis.
“I absolutely love volunteering at the soup kitchen,” senior and general member Eva Reynolds says. “The people who come in are so grateful for the opportunity to get a free meal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such genuine thank-yous or seen such joyful smiles.”
Even though the group is small, its members know that every little bit of their effort makes a difference.
Back at the Swaraj Project, Chartrand and Angel help to plant over 300 square feet of cover crops, which will deposit nitrogen into the soil over the winter.
The annoyance in Chartrand’s eyes has long disappeared, replaced instead with the squint of delight only laughter brings.
The students crack gangster jokes about “making it rain” seeds as they toss them frivolously about the garden. They smear dirt on their faces and take many selfies. They’re having fun, despite the damp weather.
They’re making a difference.
And Chillara could not be more excited.
“You guys have no idea how much we appreciate this,” she says. “Thanks to you, this garden is becoming a reality.”
As they walk back to the bus, Chartrand and Chillara talk future collaboration between FRN and Swaraj.
“If you need help building the shed, let me know,” Chartrand says to Chillara. “FRN would be more than happy to help. Our numbers might not be the greatest, but we work hard for the things we believe in.”