Millennial LeadersI distinctly remember a moment during my sophomore year in college when I was sitting in the dining hall and I noticed an absurd amount of dry cereal flanking its southern wall. I thought to myself, “That’s a lot of cereal. Surely all of that doesn’t get eaten by students.” I believe my very next thought concerned a Psychology paper that was due the next day followed quickly by what I intended to wear to that weekend’s kegger.

I tell you this little story not to highlight how self absorbed I was during my college years (I was!) but instead to introduce just how inspiring millennial leaders, Mia Zavalij and her partner Ben Simon, of Food Recovery Network really are.

The pair, while still students at the University of Maryland – College Park, made a similar observation to mine, but they acted on it. When they realized huge amounts of leftover food from campus dining halls and sports events were being thrown away, they launched Food Recovery Network (FRN).

Food Recovery NetworkZavalij explains, “Ben and I had been very involved in efforts to alleviate hunger in our local communities, from making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to canned food drives. We saw that those little things made such a great impact, but usually there was a one-time impact and we wanted to do more, we knew we needed to do more.” During the spring semester of 2011 they collaborated with other student organizations on their campus to pick up hundreds of pounds of food four nights a week. The recovered food was taken to D.C.-area shelters and fed to hungry Americans. Just like that they were off and running and the movement quickly picked up momentum. By the fall of 2011, they had recruited a network of students across four campuses and were recovering thousands of pounds of food every week. When the 2011-2012 academic year ended, the University of Maryland chapter alone had donated 30,000 meals to D.C. shelters.

In less than two years FRN achieved full non-profit status and they continue to add new national chapters regularly. But all this success has not come without obstacles. Early in the life of the organization, they faced resistance from those who feared they would be liable if someone got sick after eating their food. Thankfully, FRN could cite The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996. It protects those who donate in good faith and without any gross negligence. The group had to be persistent in educating people about the bill. Educating donors served as motivation. Zavalij explains, “We, as companies and nonprofits and people even, have the ability to turn our weaknesses into strengths and our potential threats into opportunities. By identifying people who might be resistant to the idea of starting an FRN chapter (ie. dining hall service providers) we then placed high priority on collaborating with them as soon as possible.”

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4 Ideas from FRN to Give You Momentum

  1. It is important to say “no” to great ideas if they cause you to drift from your mission
  2. As an organization grows, it is wise to look first to dedicated volunteers to fill new staff positions – they have proven themselves committed to your cause
  3. Connecting to the work on the ground is an important way for leaders to remain motivated and mission minded
  4. The food already exists to solve hunger – we just have to recover & donate it


Their success has also meant they’ve had to resist the urge to take Food Recovery Network in multiple directions. Though FRN has found their niche, school dining halls, questions about how and where they are going to expand continue to pop up. Keeping impatience in check is vital to staying successfully on mission. Food Recovery Network helps college students do food recovery at their universities and colleges. They’ve worked hard to solidify that mission. When they get excited about new opportunities to grow and begin to stray from it, it’s their board that keeps them in check. Zavalij believes, “We were very lucky, from day one the board has been invested in the organization and has believed in us.”

“It’s important to remember that just because we have to say no right now, does not mean we can’t revisit the project or idea later on. There are many ideas that we had at the very beginning that we are just now following through on because of the national staff.” Mia Zavalij

Zavalij also recognizes that a large part of their success has been the passion and dedication of the student volunteers. Zavalij and Simon have been able to delegate projects and share work with students who are as excited about the mission as they are. Volunteers are likely passionate because FRN is addressing some major social issues. Hunger is an epidemic in the United States. According to Feeding America, 1 in 6 Americans struggles with hunger. And what’s more, unrecovered food from dining halls across the country is sitting in landfills and contributing to global warming. Food Recovery Network aims to rectify that and their student volunteers do much of the heavy lifting.

“It’s the {student} chapter heads and volunteers that connect with shelters and partner agencies and form relationships with their dining halls so we do everything we can to guide and empower them.” Mia Zavalij

Still only in their second year, it’s a very exciting time for the Food Recovery Network. They currently have 52 chapters across the country and have recovered and donated more than 240,000 pounds of food. As they continue to build relationships with partners and expand to other Universities they’ve set a goal to have 75 national chapters by May of 2014. They’ve also created an opportunity to generate their own income with their latest project. FRN launched a Recovered Food CSA that markets quality recovered produce to college students. As Zavalij looks ahead she believes, “The Food Recovery Network is in a really good place.”

Interested in helping FRN meet their goal of 75 national chapters? Learn more here.