UCSF Sustainability Stories

Kailyn Klotz, Sustainability Fellow, November 2017

Food 4 UCSF Students app: A New Tool for Tackling Food Waste

As a nation, we throw away 40% of our food. We’d rather our students take advantage of excess food instead of throwing it into the landfill or compost.

Food waste. By now, you probably know it as “the world’s dumbest problem.” According to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), 40% of the food produced in the US is ultimately thrown away and wasted. Yet, food insecurity is still a major issue. A study done by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2016 showed that 12.3% of US households were considered food insecure.

This gap between food waste and food insecure individuals seems senseless and much larger than it ought to be. Based on a 2015 study done by the UC Office of the President, 23% of UC students are considered to have “low” food security (reduced quality, desirability, or variety of food), while 19% have “very low” security (disrupted eating patterns throughout the year and reduced food intake). UCSF strives to bridge this gap between wasted food and insecure students through a multitude of different pathways. In our June, 2017 article, “UCSF Tackles the World’s Dumbest Problem: Food Waste”, you can read about the university’s various efforts and gather tips on how to reduce food waste in hospitals.

We’d rather create a food triangle and have students take advantage of the excess food on campus instead of throwing it into the landfill or compost.

In June of 2017, the university implemented a new tool to better address this university-wide concern. Through the UCSF Food Security for Students program, a text notification system or “app” was created that sends out messages to students when there is leftover food on campus from catered events. This isn’t the type of app that you might download onto your phone, but rather a tool that allows you to notify students through My Access.

Food 4 UCSF Students was originally launched at Parnassus, but has proven successful and is now available for Mission Bay students as well.

Barbara Smith, Co-chair for UCSF Food Security for Students, explained, “Two years ago we were given funding from the Office of the President to do something for the food security program. We limped along for about a year. There are a lot of things that other UC campuses can do we that we can’t.” (Food pantries, for instance, are prevalent across the system.) Then last summer, Elizabeth Watkins, UCSF Graduate Division dean and Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs (SAA), suggested the ‘free food app’ idea and an interested intern in SAA made up a draft.

The Free Food 4 Students app is a two-pronged text notification system that includes food providers and students.

The following are instructions on how to use the app:

Event Organizers Register to Become a Food Provider
Before you can notify students, event organizers and hosts need to register to become food providers through the tool. By doing so, you then have the ability to send out alert texts about available food. To register, sign-up here  and you will be approved by SAA.
Once you are admitted as a food provider, notifying students of free food is simple.

You’ll be prompted to provide the following details:
• Location of the food: Identify which campus (PARN or MB), plus a specific location
• Cutoff time: Specify for how long the food will be available.  Students must pick up food within 30 minutes of an event ending to prevent spoiling and avoid safety hazards.
• Food description: Describe what kind of food and note any common dietary restricted food or allergens.

For example, a notification that is given as a reference on the SAA website is as follows:
PARN: Burritos (meat and VEG) @ Millberry Conference Center until 7 p.m.

Unless reusable dishes are available for use at an event, students should also be notified to bring their own food containers to cut down on waste. Also, be weary not to send out an alert message if you do not have a substantial amount of food to offer, and also consider sending out a second text to let students know when food has run out. 

Go to saa.ucsf.edu/food to sign up for alerts. All you need to do is provide a number for receiving text notifications and specify which campus (Parnassus, Mission Bay or both) you would like to be notified by. It is as simple as that.

Just make sure you bring containers so that you can bring extra food home with you!

When asked what goals she has for the app, Barbara responded, “I’d be thrilled if there was more than one notification sent out every day. I just want to keep it active so that students don’t feel like it’s so sporadic and it becomes bothersome.” Other than that, she would like to see more food providers registered. Currently, there are over 1,300 students signed up and 42 food providers. “We have had inquiries to expand out to the general hospital and Aldea Community Center, but we are still just at the two locations (Mission Bay and Parnassus) at this point,” she said.

Thus far, feedback about the app has been nothing but positive. “We’ve heard back from student governments that students like it,” said Barbara. And more often than not, the 30 minute food window has been too long. When there is no food left, that’s a good indication that the app is doing its job. Waste is eliminated and students are fed. We see that food triangle we are aiming for.

In addition to the Food 4 UCSF Students app, the Food Security for Students program is always working to bridge the gap between food waste and food insecure individuals. For other resources like Calfresh and listings of free food pantries and meals across SF, visit the program’s webpage.