A Replicable Service-Learning Project for Food Rescue Nonprofit Organizations


Russ O’Haver is a senior clinical professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business and a retired Ernst & Young consulting partner.


This project involves a professor mentoring a small group of students who undertaking a study to evaluate the “impact” of a multistate food rescue organization called Community Plates. The experience provided these students not only practical experience in interviewing and fact gathering but also in developing a literature review, structuring and testing a survey design, interpreting results and writing a report for an actual client.

Moreover, these students came to understand the severity of the problem of food waste, the opportunities that technology presents all along the food rescue supply chain and how the question of “impact” should be thought about broadly. Interestingly, from the community organization perspective, the project results expanded their thinking of how impact could be defined and measured — beyond simply pounds rescued — and provided insights into what actually motivates volunteer “food runners”, as well as donation and recipient (i.e., shelter) organizations.

This article describes the community organization and its (service learning) need, how the project was structured and executed, the findings and comments (from the faculty and student perspective) on the relative effectiveness of the project as a learning exercise. It is reported that there are close to sixty food rescue organizations [1] in the United States tackling the problem that forty percent of our food is wasted [2]. Accordingly, this is a social problem that easily resonates with students [3]. Given the number of rescue organizations the effort described herein provides a good opportunity for replication.

The Organization (Community Plates)

Community Plates (“CP”) was started in 2011 with the idea of using an app based technology to match food donor organizations (e.g., small grocers) with recipient organizations (e.g., shelters and food pantries) through the use of volunteer “food runners” [4]. The app pushes a daily notification to the runners as to what is available and the location of a corresponding recipient need. The runners (e.g., parents who may have an afternoon free while their children are in school) respond to make the direct — with no intermediate warehousing — pickup and delivery run using their own vehicle. CP’s organizational model targets a level of the food supply chain (e.g., small grocers, retail outlets, and eating establishments) where the size of the donor may be too small for regional food banks to service. Notably, the cost of delivering the food is substantially lower — vis a vis a regional food bank — due to the use of volunteers and lack of a need for warehousing. Further, given the same day pick-up and delivery attributes, the portion of food delivered by the CP model is exceptionally high in fresh fruits and vegetables.

As part of its effort to expand and scale nationally, the director of CP was quite interested in trying to measure and express the impact of their organizational model. The challenge put forth was for a service learning project where the students could think how to broadly identify “impact”, attempt to measure it in a manner both understandable and acceptable by a broad set of stakeholders.

The Project

As a means to think about what dimensions “impact” could be assessed, the small student team was asked to conduct web research on food waste generally to determine what features were present in different food rescue organizations. Of particular interest was distilling how CP was different from other organizations and how to assess benefit relative to where CP “competed” along the food rescue supply chain. This supply chain stretches from the farm (where volunteers known as “gleaners” gather unharvested crops) to food manufacture levels (the target of large regional food banks) through to wholesale, retail and institutional/household levels in the supply chain where food waste is prevalent. Once these dimensions — raw pounds and associated value, environmental/hunger/inequality effects, enabled budget savings at recipient organizations (the presence of ample fresh foods that are otherwise scarce enables savings in the food pantry budget), benefits to volunteers, etc. — were mapped out, the students then had to assess what could be practically measured and how to go about doing so.

The methodology that was decided on was a set of surveys designed and customized for food donors, recipient organizations and the volunteer food runners. The surveys to the donors were focused on:

Estimates of pounds donated (to validate the self-reported estimates of CP, given that donations are tax deductible and therefore formal records are kept); and

– –Determining what was unique about the CP organizational model — from the recipient organization’s perspective — relative to any other donation alternatives that may have been available (e.g., the dependability of regular runners on short notice); and

-What alternatives would be available, or outcomes foregone, if CP resources did not exist.

Recipient organization surveys were focused on:

The relative importance of fresh food from CP relative to other sources (e.g., food banks where fresh food typically represent less than 30 percent of food supplied);

Determining social economic characteristics of people served; and

Determining what would be different in the absence of CP (e.g., loss of budget savings given a renewed need to purchase fresh foods to complement food bank supplies).

Volunteer food runner surveys were designed to elicit responses to:

How much time (and relative value) was volunteered;

What was the motivation for volunteering (i.e., impact on their own lives); and

How did the inherent technology of the CP model ease the ability of volunteers to participate and what suggestions might be present to improve the overall efficiency of the CP model;

From the response rates (on the order of 20 percent) the students then had to assess how to bootstrap, or extrapolate, these findings given the relative characteristics of the respondents contrasted to what was known about the overall population of stakeholders in each of the three categories above. An interesting feature of this process was a finding that a deeper, supplemental survey was needed to really track the levels of pounds flowing through the CP process. Accordingly, the students developed a log sheet for selected volunteers to actually measure, and specify, the food in their runs. This enabled a better validation of CP’s self-reported estimates as well as the dollar value (wholesale) level of the food donated.

Student Development

Reflection and feedback provided by the students at the completion of the project provided the following learning and awareness insights:

– Understanding and articulating the concept that for a food pantry customer, the value of fresh food per pound is likely higher than that of dry goods given the relative scarcity of the former through traditional donation sources where dry and canned goods are relatively abundant;

– A client experience in having to frame interview questions and information requests;

– Experience in understanding the benefits and shortcomings of survey design and the consideration that needs to be undertaken the bootstrap findings to a larger population;

– More experience in ways to visualize data findings, such as the use of word clouds when assessing what motivates volunteer food runners;

– Understanding the supply chain and what solutions may be work best at different levels of that chain;

– A more expansive way to think about a concept like “impact” and the importance of brainstorming approaches at the start of a service learning project journey; and

– An understanding of the various dimensions of food waste — relative to their own lives and relative to those of people served by the recipient organizations — and how nonprofits (and emerging technologies) can help improve the situation.

Community Benefits

CP, as an organization, articulated the following benefits from the study:

– An independent analysis of the benefits — including environmental effects (e.g., wasted food is a large source of methane gas in landfills), social effects given the disparate impact of hunger on children/the elderly/low income populations,… — of CP as an organization, beyond simply measuring pounds delivered;

– An assessment as to how accurate their measurement methodology of pounds was (this led to revisions in their methodology);

– A report that can be used to generate increased funding of CP, based upon the relative impacts generated;

– An quantitative comparison of the impact and uniqueness of CP compared to more traditional food banks; and

– A much deeper understanding or what motivates their volunteers to help with future food runner recruitment efforts.

Reflections on Effectiveness of the Project on Student Learning

As the faculty mentor on this project, I believe an exercise structured this way has multiple benefits. Having done five of these types of nonprofit service learning exercises I believe the relative benefits can be identified as:

– The student gets both a hands-on experience of applying classroom learning to a real world problem, including grappling with the ambiguity present in such real world applications;

– The student gets a real client experience (i.e., they conduct the interview, as the follow-up questions, present methodology and findings in non-technical terms);

– The student gets exposed to nonprofits (a nice feature of nonprofits is that the limited size can permit the student to see more of the big picture as to how the organization operates rather than a more limited “slice” that may be present interning at a larger corporate entity);

– The student gets a mentee experience (and the faculty a mentor role) to complement benefits obtained from classroom and experiential learning; and

– The faculty (and future students) get the benefit of having the experience taught in a mini-case format with elements of peer to peer learning present.

From a student perspective on this particular project the following additional insight was provided:

As a recently graduated master’s student in applied economics, I have spent the last year and a half honing my research and data analysis skills. As someone passionate about social justice, I was always uncomfortable with the proposed trade-off between efficiency and equity inherent to classic economic theory. The Community Plates impact study allowed me to utilize the skills that I developed from my education to show that efficiency and equity are not mutually exclusive. Learning about the profound multifaceted impact that Community Plates has, in part because of its highly efficient business model, this project has provided a real world example of economics being used for the common good.”


This is the type of project that should resonate with students and fulfill a useful community need — in this case, CP did not have the budget to afford an external consultant nor the full “bandwidth” and independence to undertake the study internally — as well as providing a meaningful opportunity for students to apply classroom learning to real situations thereby enabling a client consulting experience (with the help of a faculty mentor as a backstop) along the way. Given the number of food rescue operations around the country, the author hopes this article provides a framework of a service learning project that could be readily replicated. The author is happy to share his materials.


[1} 59 Organizations Fight Food Loss and Waste. Foodtank (www.foodtank.com)

[2] www.Feedingamerica.org

[3] Linda Poon. (2015). When Food is Too Good To Waste College Kids Pick Up the Scraps. The Salt.

[4] www.foodrescue.us (aka Community Plates)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Russ O’Haver, PhD is a senior clinical professor at Northeastern University, teaching in the undergraduate Accounting department. He also teaches Law and Economics and social regulation in the graduate program at Boston College. He is a retired Ernst & Young consulting partner who has structured a number of service-learning experience for small groups of students at nonprofits in the clinical health, environmental, arts and similar areas. He can be reached at r.ohaver@northeastern.edu

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