Food Recovery Network
Universities throw out millions of pounds of food each year. Food waste is a problem for universities because they never know how much food to prepare each day. At the end of the day, most universities throw the remaining food in the trash. Food waste at the University of Maryland hit home for Ben Simon’14 when he started to notice how much food was being thrown away each night and it struck him that all that food could be repurposed to help those that needed it most.
In fall 2011, Simon and his closest friends came up with a plan. They wanted to go into the dining halls on campus at the end of the night, package up the remaining food, and redistribute it to food banks and shelters in the area. They named their operation the Food Recovery Network (FRN). Dining Services was supportive and as their efforts started to take off, Simon got more and more excited, “the process is a common sense solution that is good for everyone.” He explained that recovering the food is easy: student volunteers arrive at the dining halls once they close, package and weigh the food to keep track of the total amount being recovered, and drive the food to shelters that need it most.
In early 2012, Simon learned about a competition designed to encourage students to do good at the University of Maryland and enrolled in a Nonprofit Leadership and Management course taught by Professor Grimm who also served as the Director of the School of Public Policy’s new Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. While Simon was not entirely sure how the competition fit into his larger vision of what he wanted to accomplish with the Food Recovery Network, he knew the grand prize ($6,000) and judges such as actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame Coach Gary Williams could really take the Food Recovery Network to the next level.
Simon and his team won the first-ever Do Good Challenge in April 2012. During the Challenge, they opened another student chapter at Brown University and recovered 6,000 meals on the College Park campus. “Competing in the Challenge really gave us the push we needed to grow as an organization,” explained Simon. Feedback they received from the judges also helped the Food Recovery Network formalize their model and develop a plan for expansion.
The summer after their Do Good Challenge win, the University of Maryland put substantial effort behind accelerating the growth of the Food Recovery Network into a national nonprofit. Strategy expert Dr. Robert Sheehan (Academic Director of the Executive MBA Program and an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership) led multiple day-long retreats to support the creation of a business plan, Grimm became the founding Chair of the FRN board, Simon enrolled in every graduate course in nonprofit leadership and management in the School of Public Policy, and Associate Provost Dean Chang and his Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship provided free office space.
Today, the Food Recovery Network is a leading, national organization in the food recovery and hunger relief movement. In their first four years, FRN has recovered over 1.4 million pounds of food and created active student chapters on over 190 college campuses across more than 40 states. In early 2015, Forbes named FRN founder Ben Simon one of the top 30 social entrepreneurs under 30.
In summer 2015, Simon stepped down from serving as the founding Executive Director of FRN and co-founded a food-based company, Imperfect. The social venture company ships ugly produce from farms, direct to homes. Simon still remains highly involved with the Food Recovery Network as an active board member. Reflecting on the achievements of FRN, Simon concluded, “My cofounders [and I] were really dreaming of this ever since our first few [dining] halls… we could not believe that much food was being thrown away.”