UW-Madison student Hannah DePorter stocks a refrigerator in the university’s Student Activity Center with vegetables grown for campus research projects. DePorter founded an initiative called the Campus Food Shed that aims to find a better use for the surplus produce faculty and students grow as part of their agriculture research. Photo by John Hart, State Journal
When Hannah DePorter’s plant breeding and genetics lab at UW-Madison grows beets, only a fraction of what the students harvest winds up being used for research.
Some of the rest goes to local food pantries and to students such as DePorter, who takes beets home to cook and give to friends. But there’s always plenty left over.
“So many of the beets were left in the field to compost,” she said.
DePorter, who will be a senior this fall, wants to change that, so she has started a new program that aims to address twin problems: The food waste that occurs when researchers in agriculture programs throw out or compost the excess produce they grow and the food insecurity that leaves some low-income college students hungry.
Her solution is called the Campus Food Shed, and it will take the form of four refrigerators stationed around UW-Madison that will be stocked with left-over produce for anyone who needs or wants free, nutritious and locally grown fruits and vegetables.
The first location opened in the Student Activity Center on Friday.
In an interesting juxtaposition, the refrigerator sits right next to a bank of vending machines — giving students a choice, DePorter said, between “fresh vegetables for free” and “processed foods that cost money.”
There should be plenty of produce to supply the refrigerators. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alone has a dozen research stations around Wisconsin where faculty grow crops. F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, a campus group DePorter is a member of, also has a two-acre plot, and researchers grow produce on space they rent from private farms as well.
The needs of research projects vary, said Irwin Goldman, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, but in some cases they only require half of what fields produce, if not less.
Without a formal system for what’s left over, researchers often just leave piles of free produce on tables in the halls of the Horticulture Building, Goldman said.
He credited DePorter for saying, “Let’s do something with this.”
Goldman said six researchers have signed on to contribute their crops to the Campus Food Shed, and he and DePorter are looking for others who will join the effort.
‘Great, local food’
Along with the Student Activity Center, on the third floor of 333 East Campus Mall, refrigerators will be stationed in Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.; Moore Hall, 1575 Linden Drive; and the Allen Centennial Garden, 620 Babcock Drive.Campus Food Shed,
Labels will tell visitors what the food is and when it was picked, DePorter said, and volunteers will make the rounds to toss any produce that goes bad.
The refrigerators are open whenever the campus buildings are, and are available to students or anyone else who wants the free produce, she said. There’s no limit to what people can take, and the new initiative won’t reduce how much produce goes to local food pantries, DePorter said.
“We’re hoping that this reaches as many people as possible,” she said.
The fact that they are stocked with locally grown produce means the fridges won’t have much to offer when they first open, since it’s still early in Wisconsin’s growing season, and will probably be less full during the depths of winter.
But organizers say the produce will provide a source of free and healthy food on a campus in which students have directed more attention to the plight of less wealthy peers who sometimes struggle to find enough to eat. A campus food pantry, The Open Seat, opened last year on a floor above the first Campus Food Shed refrigerator.
“It’s relatively small,” Goldman said of the effort, “but it’s great, local food.”