What if the key to a healthier environment and community was just a collection of small steps and individual actions that add up? For the past school year, UNC Asheville has been turning this hypothetical into a reality, one cup and one plate at a time.
In the fall of 2015, The Student Environmental Center (SEC) launched its “AsheFILL it Up” program, featuring reusable plastic Cupanion cups with a barcode that offers 15 percent off of any drink purchase, plus 15 cents donated to Food Connection, a local nonprofit.
These are just some steps that represent a movement toward being more environmentally conscious, says SEC member Matthew “Lee” Fussell. “Being environmental is getting every little succulent drop out of whatever you’re using so that you’re not wasting it,” the 20-year-old environmental science major says. “That’s just it, it’s waste.” And Fussell doesn’t waste much. While previously living off-campus, he says he would buy his groceries in bulk in order to prepare every meal for the week. He says he uses as little air conditioning and central heating as possible and often showers with the lights off. Having a reusable cup, like the Cupanion that UNC Asheville implemented, certainly helps with limiting what he wastes.
Laura Sexton, the registered dietician for dining services on campus, says the university had an opportunity to donate to any organization, so they chose Food Connection, which brings leftover foods from restaurants and businesses to soup kitchens and other food distributors. “Our students actually wanted to see a local organization,” Sexton says. “And Food Connection just fit really nicely into that picture.” It made sense to tie the two together, and since the program launched UNC Asheville has used 2,796 single use cups with one point for every barcode scanned. Cupanion members have 50,883 single cup uses overall.
Partnership Distributes Food to the Community
At the beginning of the school year, it also made sense to make some changes toward food recovery. UNC Asheville began its partnership with Food Connection with a bang, recovering about 100 pounds of prepared, leftover food a day from the dining hall.
During the fall semester, both the Installation of Chancellor Mary K. Grant on Sept. 19 and Food Day on Oct. 23 contributed a large amount to Food Connection. Food Day was the creation of both Sexton and Amy Lanou, chair of the Health and Wellness Department, who suggested a cook-o-thon that would involve faculty, staff and students. “A lot of people who came into the kitchen to cook, it was some of their first experiences with food preparation,” Sexton says with a smile. “So it was an educational experience and also just this awareness experience that we really wanted to bring to campus. It was just so successful and all of the recipients loved the food.” The team was able to prepare over 500 plant-based meals in 10 hours.
Some participants such as first-year student Juliet Flam-Ross were able to work directly with Food Connection through their classes. She says her LANG 120 course, “Food Matters,” which dealt with food stability in the local area, had to have 15 hours of community service. Flam-Ross worked directly with Flori Pate, co-founder of Food Connection, learning the process on how to transport food from Brown Hall, then she eventually trained others on this process as well.
Food Recovery Starts in the Kitchen
UNC Asheville alumni have a hand in the donations too, all the way back to the ingredients, with dining services executive chef Alex Williams taking the lead. He says he and Sexton work closely together in order to “move the needle forward in terms of sustainability.”
Williams’ responsibilities include menu development, sanitation safety, and overall operation, which means putting the food into correct storage bins, labeling it, and preparing it for transportation. He oversees all of this and says it’s been a great alternative to composting all excess food. “This has been a good thing because it’s kind of met in the middle of, ‘We can no longer use it, but someone else can,’” Williams says. “So, it’s kind of bridged that gap.”
So far, Food Connection has recovered over 20,000 meals since its founding. As of May 2016, UNC Asheville has contributed more than 12,000 meals. While numbers like these may seem extraordinary, sophomore Fussell says creating an impact on the community and environment is all about taking one simple step at a time.
“It’s just being a more accountable person, which is actually the hardest thing about it,” Fussell says. “It’s just taking out the recycling, taking out the trash. The world doesn’t really need heroes.”