Posing alongside bags, boxes, and even trunkfuls of food, members of the food rescue nonprofit Stem4Free are depicted on their Instagram page donating leftover food from local restaurants to food banks and communities.
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Arnav Bhakta ’22 and Emily Huang ’21 founded Stem4Free, an organization dedicated to reducing food waste, when they noticed students disposing large amounts of food in Paresky Commons. Since then, the organization has exploded in size, amassing over 150 student volunteers and donating over 178,000 servings of food, rescuing around 25,000 servings in the last week alone according to their website stem4free.org. In addition, the organization runs a blog and sponsors a podcast called The Food Talk that focuses on food waste and sees what people are doing during Covid-19 to mitigate waste.
“I was thinking about what we could do to reduce the amount of food that we’re wasting, because all of this food is going to waste and no one’s going to eat it. It’s all going to landfills,” said Bhakta.
In order to rescue food, Stem4Free partners with businesses to pick up wasted food and bring it to places where it’s needed. According to Bhakta, he usually makes unscheduled calls or emails to restaurants.
“We contact the businesses by cold calling them or cold emailing them. Then we say, ‘Hey, I’m part of a food rescue nonprofit called Stem4Free. We were wondering if you wanted to partner with us to reduce the amount of that you waste and make an impact on your community.’ We act as an intermediary between restaurants and the food banks,” said Bhakta.
Stem4Free has 25 total branches in the U.S. and other countries. At each of these locations, they contact local businesses and locate food banks. When arriving at the businesses, the food would either be pre-packaged or require help packaging, before being transported to donation sites in temperature-controlled bags.
Warren Clark ’21 is the head of the Austin, Tex. branch of Stem4Free, as well as the CSO and Secretary. She makes up to three deliveries each day with fellow volunteers. On campus for Fall term, she handles the logistics and makes sure everything is running smoothly.
“I started our first local initiative that worked alongside the Massachusetts branch. More and more people in Austin got involved, and it was super inspiring to do the work on the ground, donating hundreds of servings a week from some of my favorite local bakeries. I’m super proud to compare the beginnings of stem4free with our growth to this point; I was just as invested in the organization and the work we were doing when Austin was the only branch and we donated a few thousand servings in a month—now, we have 25 dedicated branches of students who have donated more than 100,000 servings total,” said Clark in an email to The Phillipian.
Clara Tu ’21 is a Co-Branch Manager for Connecticut. She coordinates a team of ten members to find businesses and donation centers as well as spread social media influence and orientation for new members. The Caritas Food Pantry that they sent food to is one that she remembers fondly.
“One food pantry we donate to in Connecticut is Caritas of Port Chester, and upon our first donation, they invited me to take a tour of their facility and to see how the food we provide them are able to support their community. Seeing the joy on everyone’s faces in receiving the food—chicken, lasagna, pastries, bread, salad, pasta, sandwiches, etc.—really reminded me how even small gestures can leave a lasting impact,” wrote Tu in an email to The Phillipian.
From managing the blog, contacting organizations, and driving to the locations, Stem4Free takes commitment, but at the end of the day, seeing the impact on food waste and the joy of the community in receiving food is worth it.
“From the board of directors to branch managers to local volunteers, there’s no incentive to be a part of Stem4Free besides the opportunity to help local communities. This means that every one of our volunteers is there because they truly want to make a difference in their community and be a part of our organization, which is truly inspiring when you consider how much time and effort has been sacrificed internationally,” wrote Clark.
Editor’s Note: Emily Huang is a Managing Editor for The Phillipian.