Jill Falchi was always bothered by the food she saw wasted at restaurants.
In her years working at banquet halls and eateries, the 21-year-old Union College senior always bristled at the sight of a garbage can filled with perfectly edible food. She always wondered why the unused food couldn’t be given to someone in need instead of wasting away in a landfill.
“I’ve worked in restaurants all my life and they throw so much food away,” she said Saturday.
Likewise, she wondered why Union’s six dining halls couldn’t put their leftovers to better use. And that’s when she learned about the Campus Kitchen Project, a national volunteer program that teaches students how to recycle food from their cafeteria into nourishing meals for the needy.
Each week, Falchi and a group of about 30 volunteers gather unused food items from the dining halls and create a menu that is cooked at the kitchen in Union’s College Park Hall on Saturday morning. In total, the students prepare about 150 meals, which are delivered to the Schenectady City Mission hot and ready to serve during the late afternoon.
Mike Saccocio, City Mission executive director, said the Campus Kitchen program under Falchi’s direction has been a windfall, especially considering the general scarcity of volunteer resources during the weekends. He said the meals, now in their fourth week, help supplement the mission’s normal food service.
“It is a huge help to us because they take care of the whole meal,” he said. “For a place like the mission where we are putting out four meals a day seven days a week, this is a real gift.”
But with Falchi’s culinary prowess, these aren’t just any meals. She has a knack for turning the unused food into scrumptious meals that one could easily mistake for restaurant quality.
For instance, the students took about 15 pounds of pork roast that was served in the dining halls this week and transformed it into barbecued pulled pork. They also jazzed up some surplus canned tomatoes into a red sauce to serve over penne pasta with grated cheese.
All of the volunteers are trained and certified as food handlers. The program also receives a $10,000 annual grant from Campus Kitchen in addition to a $2,000 donation from Union, which is used to purchase some of the ingredients used to turn the leftovers into meals.
Falchi’s effort also has the support of Dan Detora, Union’s director of dining services, who helps collect and store the unused food items over the course of a week. Ordinarily, he said, the leftovers would be stowed in a freezer and then discarded at the end of the school year. “A lot of it was thrown away,” he said.
Union is among about two dozen campuses participating in the program nationwide and the first in New York. Falchi, an environmental policy major, was able to get the Campus Kitchen Project started at Union in about six months, about a year quicker than normal.
Falchi is hoping to grow what they’ve started and even incorporate other facets. They’re talking about getting fresh produce donations from area farmers’ markets and possibly incorporating an educational component to teach proper nutrition.
Aside from its obvious benefits, the program also gives Union students an insight into the some of the problems facing the community. Erin Delman, a sophomore at Union and volunteer with Campus Kitchen, said the group was quick to find a demand for their work.
“We found there is a pretty huge need in Schenectady.”