On a recent evening, students at Pomona College feasted on chicken pot pie, steamed veggies, biscuits and rice. And, as is often the case, there were plenty of leftovers in the dining hall, enough for about 100 extra meals.
Those leftovers, however, weren't destined for the dumpster. Instead, they were carefully packaged by dining hall workers, handed to a group of students and driven to nearby Inland Valley Hope Partners, a nonprofit shelter for people in need.
Pomona College's efforts to keep prepared food from going to waste are part of a nationwide coalition of student groups called the Food Recovery Network, which estimates that about 22 million meals are thrown away at U.S. colleges every year.
The volunteer activities of the Pomona branch of the Food Recovery Network came to my attention after I wrote about the need for a nonprofit organization to help keep leftover food from caterers, hotels and restaurants from ending up in garbage dumps.
The students are pulling off something other groups can emulate. But doing it on a broader scale would take work — and the cooperation of local health officials.
About 1.5 million tons of prepared food is thrown out each year in California alone, according to the state Integrated Waste Management Board.
Meanwhile, 3.7 million California adults struggled to put food on the table in 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
"If I had to use just one word to describe how much perfectly good food is thrown away, it would be 'obscene,'" said Nick Murphy, 22, coordinator for the Pomona program. "It's absolutely outrageous how much food is wasted."
Murphy is a senior majoring in molecular biology. After he graduates from Pomona, he plans to get a master's degree at the University of Cambridge in Britain and then to attend medical school.
In other words, he's a busy guy. But Murphy and other student volunteers still manage to find the time to pick up leftovers from the campus dining hall each night and make the 10-minute drive to the shelter.
"On a typical night, the food is off the lines, into containers and at the shelter within an hour," he said.
At lunchtime, Murphy said, a volunteer from the Salvation Army arrives to take leftovers to a nearby branch of that organization. "We're still trying to figure out breakfast," he said.
Also participating in the Food Recovery Network are students at Claremont McKenna College, UC Berkeley, University of Maryland in College Park, Brown University, University of Texas at Austin, Providence College and the Rhode Island School of Design.
As I wrote recently, the federal Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act shields most donors from legal liability. But it doesn't protect charities receiving donated food, which must ensure that any meals served meet all local and state health requirements.
For example, the temperature of prepared food must be closely monitored to prevent bacteria from sneaking in. California requires that hot food be kept above 135 degrees Fahrenheit and cold food below 45 degrees during transportation.
Not knowing whether such rules have been met prompts many potential food recipients, such as shelters and food pantries, to decline offers of prepared meals.
"This can be a real challenge," said Arlene K. Mercer, founder of Food Finders, a Long Beach organization that collects perishable and prepared food and distributes it to charities throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. "There are agencies that are fearful about receiving prepared food."
I heard the same from Bruce Rankin, executive director of the Westside Food Bank. The group runs a program called Extra Helpings Westside to arrange for perishable food, such as fruit and vegetables, and prepared meals to make their way to local organizations that assist those in need.
"About 90% of what we see are perishables, rather than prepared food," he said. "It's frustrating. People can have a hard time finding a place to donate prepared food."
This is indeed a challenge — and an opportunity.