Engineering a nationwide plan to reduce campus food waste, hunger
It happens daily at college campuses around the country: A truck pulls up to a restaurant or dining hall to deliver fresh ingredients. Then another comes to collect and dispose of leftover food — a service the restaurants pay for. What if we could change that system, so the first truck collected the leftover food and delivered it to local charities along their delivery route?
“We have all this food that's being thrown away, and all of these people who could benefit from it,” says Adrian Cruz, a fourth-year industrial and systems engineering student. “How do we feed that gap?”
Cruz was part of a University of Florida team that won the 2019 Accenture Innovation Challenge, where 59 collegiate teams were tasked with helping the hunger-relief organization Feeding America address food insecurity for college students and their communities.
This summer, Cruz will be working to implement the UF team’s plan — which beat schools including Georgia Tech and the reigning champion, University of North Carolina — during an internship with Accenture’s Innovation Hub in San Francisco. He envisions rolling out their strategies at a pilot campus, then going nationwide in the next five years.
It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that businesses pay to have perfectly edible food removed, but getting that food to those who need it is more complicated than it seems, especially with prepared foods whose shelf life is limited. Meals like those can be a lifeline for college students, one in five of whom face food insecurity.
“It just hurts me to think that food is going to waste, especially during Thanksgiving time when it's the opportunity to share and cherish food and not everyone has the opportunity,” Cruz said. “Food can just bring so much light into someone's life.”
Teams developed creative methods to get surplus food to people who need it, from Uber drivers to students on scooters. The UF team — which included Caroline Kim and Ricardo Perez, also from the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, and information systems major Sarah Rinehart of the Warrington College of Business — focused on leveraging people and processes already at work in the restaurants, which gave them an edge, Cruz said. Here’s how it would work: After making a delivery, truck drivers would pick up edible leftovers and consult an app that overlays their existing route with agencies in the community that could distribute the food, allowing them to deliver it for minimal cost, effort and time.
“That’s where I incorporate my engineering background,” Cruz said. “How do we make this process seamless, using the food catering system that's already set up?”
The winning plan also includes campus involvement to reduce the stigma around food insecurity and to support organizations like UF’s Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry, part of the Field & Fork Campus Food Program, a partnership between IFAS/CALS and the Division of Student Affairs.
Cruz says he was inspired to tap into goodwill on campus by UF President W. Kent Fuchs’ 2018 April Fools video, which sparked the donation of 12,870 items to the Pantry.
“When I saw the amount of cans that were donated in just those few days, I thought, imagine what we could do with campus ambassadors spearheading a whole semester plan?”
The Innovation Challenge also helped Cruz, who is minoring in international development and humanitarian assistance, settle on a career path.
“I realized there's a link between public policymaking and engineering,” he said. “This project is my ideal work…finding solutions that can integrate technology to better serve the community.”