Taking a Bite Out of Food Waste

February 8, 2024 By Erica Szymanski, szymanskie@darden.virginia.edu Erica Szymanski, szymanskie@darden.virginia.edu

Tapping into his passion for service, one graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is on a mission to fight hunger within the Charlottesville community.

Garreth Bartholomew learned the benefits of limiting food waste and the realities of food insecurities through stories his mother shared of her childhood. Bartholomew’s grandmother was a single mother of six and a public-school teacher. Bartholomew’s mother would recount their “fried chicken summers,” when Bartholomew’s uncle would gather the leftovers from his job at a local restaurant, and the family would eat the chicken for all three meals. 

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“When I was growing up, we didn’t experience that, but there was always that tension of food insecurity in the household,” Bartholomew said. “But that didn’t mean that we weren’t allowed to give back. Every Sunday morning, my mom would make me get up, from the age of 3 on, and we would do Meals on Wheels.” 

Side by side of people handling food

Daud Mohamud from FLIK Hospitality at Darden, left, breaks down a catered buffet following an event. Executive sous chef Scott Prol,right, then prepares the food for donation. (Photos by Matt Riley, University Communications)

Bartholomew is the president of Food Assist, a student volunteer organization that transports food that would otherwise go to waste to organizations supporting those in need. Volunteers sign up for shifts to pick up donations from local restaurants, as well as from University dining halls, and drive the food to local shelters and pantries. Food Assist is the University’s chapter of the Food Recovery Network, a national organization comprising more than 200 college chapters

Bartholomew also serves as the graduate assistant for basic needs at the University, a role that includes overseeing the UVA Community Food Pantry in Newcomb Hall. Both the Food Assist donation runs and pantry restocking address immediate need in the community, but Bartholomew notes his work is just a start.

Side by side of Garreth helping move and transport food
Garreth Bartholomew, president of UVA’s chapter of Food Assist anda graduate student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, transports donated food to area organizations. (Photos by Matt Riley, University Communications, left, and Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“These are all patches on the system, but hopefully by bringing together all of these patches we can make a quilt of solutions,” Bartholomew said. “That’s why I am in it, and that’s why I hope to be in it for a long time.”

Approximately 17% of Charlottesville residents experience food insecurity, a noticeably steeper rate than the 11% of families who experience food insecurity statewide. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 30% to 40% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste. Food Assist volunteers bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity, addressing the food distribution problem.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Bartholomew said. “It [food insecurity] can affect anyone of any perceived means. I have been so excited to be able to help folks who would otherwise not be able to have access to the resources that they need.”

Since Food Assist’s inception in December 2018, the chapter has recovered more than 16,000 pounds of would-be food waste, recovering more than half of those pounds within the past two semesters, under Bartholomew’s leadership. Since August, student volunteers have completed more than 100 donation runs. 

Barbara working with Bartholomew to unpack food

After arriving at The Salvation Army, Bartholomew works with Barbara Bellamy to unpack the donated items. (Photos by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Food Assist’s latest community partner is FLIK Hospitality Group at Darden. Food Assist student volunteers collect donations from Darden once or twice each week, transporting everything from breakfast pastries to pork barbeque to The Salvation Army. 

On a pickup day, Bartholomew parks his car outside of Darden’s loading dock, weaving through the maze in the basement to greet executive sous chef Scott Prol in the kitchen. Prol coordinates the donation runs with the Food Assist student team, packing and labeling the donations. 

Carl Lasley, director of food and beverage, praised Prol and the rest of his team for making this partnership possible. 

“FLIK Hospitality Group is committed to reducing food waste and supporting community food rescue,” Lasley said. “It is important that overproduction is going to those in the community who depend on these services to help battle food insecurity. The team is also committed to this partnership and is vested in the program and the feeling and services it brings to our community.”

Barbara putting food in the fridge
Bellamy’s 30 years of work at The Salvation Army were honored this year when the organization’s annual Thanksgiving dinner was named in her honor. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Once the trays are packed and labeled, Prol and Bartholomew load the donations into large cooler bags, ensuring the food is carefully temperature-controlled during transit. After the soft coolers are loaded into his car, Bartholomew is off to meet Barbara Bellamy in The Salvation Army’s commercial kitchen. 

Bellamy is in her 30th year of cooking at The Salvation Army; the annual Thanksgiving dinner recently was named in her honor

“God is working on my prayer,” Bellamy said, “cause every time I need something, it might not get there when I need it, but it comes. Just like this morning, we didn’t have meat to make bagged lunches.” 

The nature of Bartholomew’s work means he doesn’t often witness the impact of his donations firsthand. But Bartholomew said he recently received anonymous notes from a student who was able to cure their anemia with pantry donations and another who was able to cook new dishes after borrowing a can opener from the pantry’s library of kitchen utensils. 

“We don’t really get to see the impact of what we do,” Bartholomew said. “We can see the numbers in terms of the ever-increasing demand, and we know that people are being helped, but we can’t really experience those impacts. But there are a couple of these small stories that make it really worth it.”