A few slices of cold pizza sitting in their oily cardboard misery. Boxes of coffee stained with greasy fingerprints. Half-empty liters of soda that look as if their bubbles have lost their enthusiasm.
On any given night, food scraps from speaker events and club meetings collect in the lobby of Huntsman Hall. Hungry passers-by snag a few slices or drinks until what looks appetizing is gone. The uneaten food has a common destination: the trash.
Environmentally-conscious and thrifty, College junior Wayne Schmitt recognized this food waste and decided it was time to do something about it. This past February, he created the Facebook group Free Food at Penn, designed to connect Penn students to free food on campus.
“I kept on seeing all of these events that have free food, and I thought there should be a collective of all of these things,” Schmitt said.
Shortly after, he enlisted his friend, College senior Nick Welch, to help approve members. The group has more than 660 members and is very active, with members posting club events with food, coupons for restaurants and photos of leftovers from events.
The group isn’t about encouraging eat and run. Schmitt and Welch see it as a step toward increasing club engagement, reducing food waste and combating food insecurity on campus.
“My intentions when I made it was not just to make a thing where people get food and leave. I also want to it to be reciprocal,” Schmitt said. “Clubs post in there, they get more attendees and then people get food. It’s a win-win scenario.”
An alternate meal plan
Wharton sophomore Laura Gao joked she has gone to Fresh Grocer twice this semester thanks to the group.
“I am fairly low maintenance since I don’t spend that much money on food, but this group has lowered that amount even more,” Gao said. “I also save time because I don’t have to spend time going grocery shopping and preparing food.”
Scouting out and attending the events can become a time commitment of its own. Schmitt strategically attends events with free food to feed himself — he has gone several days this semester without having to pay for any meals.
For him, this extra planning is an everyday part of budgeting his food.
“I come from a low-income background, and I get financial aid which is great, but my family does not really have enough money to support me otherwise, so because of that I have tried to find ways to save money,” Schmitt said. “I eat at food carts, cheap places — there are a few restaurants around that are usually under $10, and I use coupons whenever I can.”
Welch, who also identified as low-income, said he pairs a couple free food events a week with his own methods for making ends meet.
“I find myself to be a very resourceful person in general. I'm constantly looking for coupons for things, using Groupon all the time. Also, checking in with my friends to see if they have food or to see if they want to go to a place and split food with me,” Welch said.
Eating on a low budget ends up consuming a lot of Welch’s time and energy.
“I think a lot of measures in my life I take because I think it will help me, but if you ask any of my friends they would say I don't really sleep,” Welch said.
Schmitt said he blocks off 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. because that’s when most events with food occur. Sometimes people post right before an event starts, either causing him to change his plans last minute or regret he purchased food without knowing.
When people don’t post the type of food being served, students may show up only to realize they can’t eat it or it’s pizza — again.
“It’s important to make sure that while you are doing things like this, you are still having a healthy diet and exercising,” Schmitt said. “It’s a balance of saving money while also nourishing yourself. And I mean that is kind of like a larger issue in the United States where worse food is generally cheaper.”
Resources at Penn
Schmitt and Welch said they went off Penn’s dining plan as early as they could, receiving a financial aid refund in its place. However, students who rely on their dining plans may find it difficult to stay on campus during breaks when most dining locations close.
Penn Dining provides pre-packaged, to-go meals during breaks to dining plan holders, according to a statement from the Division of Business Services and Student Registration and Financial Services. However, there are some other lesser-known resources on campus for students who may face food insecurity.
Jamie-Lee Josselyn, a College House Fellow at Hill College House, said she cooked a few meals for students of low-income backgrounds over spring break. As a former first-generation student at Penn, Josselyn said she hasn’t seen many initiatives by the institution to tackle food insecurity.
“I think there are some small organizations on campus that are being mindful about this and being generous with their food offerings, perhaps as a way to triage or help a larger problem that might be addressed by the University as a whole at some point,” Josselyn said.
Josselyn is also a creative writing instructor who works closely with the Kelly Writers House — she said the house is known to provide its own “dining plan” through its kitchen and frequent events with free food.
The Greenfield Intercultural Center has also made a kitchen and snacks accessible to students and offered meals during spring break, Director Valerie De Cruz said. Penn Women’s Center usually cooks a pot of pasta every Monday for students to take.
Hillel Soup Kitchen serves anybody in need, though College senior and co-director Allison Resnick said she has personally never seen a student use it in her three years in the position.
While the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life lists a few organizations on its website that students can contact when in need of emergency funding, none of these are specific to food. Students who cannot afford items in the cost of attendance, including a dining plan, are encouraged by Student Registration and Financial Services to talk to their financial aid adviser.
Creating a dialogue
Free Food at Penn allows students to tap into the University’s resources to make food more accessible.
“This money isn't actually free. It’s coming from the school, but I just am under the opinion that the school has enough money to feed us more,” Schmitt said.
The supportive, positive environment of the group may stop students from feeling ashamed to take advantage of these resources.
“There is a certain campus climate where socioeconomic status is something to hide,” Welch said. “It’s easy to have shame about [food insecurity], so I think if you show up to an event people are not going to assume anything about you.”
He added, “It’s kind of a sad thing, but people can still hide that aspect of themselves. They don't have to say, ‘Oh, if I don't eat this, I literally won't have dinner tonight.’ They don't have to explain themselves.”
While the Facebook group can be a tool for low-income students, Schmitt and Welch said the group can be useful for all students.
“I think any student can appreciate the benefits of having free food there, not just students from particular backgrounds. Also, it is really cool that often when I go to these events, they usually are about subjects I’m not really familiar with,” Welch said.
He added, “It’s just a cool intellectual experience on top of having free food and not having to pay for dinner that night.”
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