UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

UND’s new Catering Leftovers Program feeds hungry students, helps eliminate food waste

Mitch Vervalen, Andrea Green and Matt Fashingbauer
University Catering Sous Chef Mitch Vervalen (from left), Catering Manager Andrea Green and lead catering cook Matt Fashingbauer say they’re happy the Catering Leftovers Program allows them to share more of their food with students. It’s difficult for even the most experienced event coordinators to plan the number of servings right down to the plate, so the new program cuts down on waste while also helping to lessen the impact of food insecurity among college students. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Imagine this: You’re planning an intimate dinner party for 500 of your closest friends.

You really like these friends, so you’ve decided to serve them a main course of cranberry Bordelaise-braised beef short ribs, paired with twice-baked potatoes, honey-glazed carrots and a fresh spinach salad drizzled with a tangy honey dressing. Of course, there’ll also be the requisite hard rolls and butter pats, plus a thick slice of classic New York cherry cheesecake for dessert.

Sound mouth-watering-delicious? Absolutely.

But what happens when it’s a UND event and 150 of your guests decide not to show? What do you do with all that extra food?

If you’re University Catering Manager Andrea Green, you know just the right answer: It’s the brand-new Catering Leftovers Program, which allows students who’ve opted in to pick up their own boxed meal with all the fixings — the hot dishes still hot and the cold salads still cold.

Mitch Vervalen and Matt Fashingbauer
Sous Chef Mitch Vervalen (left) and lead catering cook Matt Fashingbauer prepare fruit and vegetable kebabs for a recent catered event on campus. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Waste not, want not

Green said it was Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Beth Hellwig who last fall first brought up the idea of sharing leftovers from catered events with students — she’d seen how similar programs elsewhere helped mitigate food insecurity in college students.

Now, barely two months into its launch here, the program is a huge hit. More than 150 students have opted in via the Dining Channel on the My UND app, and more than 160 meals have gone out.

Not only does it limit food waste, but it also takes some of the pressure off the event planners.

“No matter how hard event coordinators try to estimate the number of guests and just how much food they’ll need, it’s never a perfect plan,” Green said. “Some events are open to everyone, so you really can only estimate. And even if it’s a set guest list, I guess people just don’t RSVP as well as they used to.”

So far, Green said they’ve heard nothing but positive feedback.

“Our customers are so grateful we’re doing this and so happy they can help students have good food to eat,” she said. “And the students think it’s great, too. A student told one of my servers, ‘Oh my gosh, I wasn’t going to have food to eat tonight, and now I have this meal. Thank you so much!’”

Platter of catered food
No matter if it’s a big sit-down dinner or trays of delicious appetizers, a lot of work goes into preparing the food for catered events on the UND campus. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Food insecurity on campus

And believe it or not, food insecurity in college students does exist at UND.

Kristi Okerlund, director of UND Student Involvement & Parent Programs, said 35 percent of college students nationwide report food insecurity.

Okerlund said she didn’t have an exact percentage for UND students but added that it likely follows the national trend pretty closely. She provided one example as evidence.

“Our food pantry has been extremely busy the last year,” Okerlund said. “It went from 350 student visits in the spring of 2022 to 1,100 visits in the fall, so the timing of this new program is perfect.

“As we know, more and more students are learning about the food pantry and the different options. They’re saying, ‘I need help. It’s OK to get help. I know this is what I need to be academically successful.’ You will not be academically successful if you’re hungry.”

Student Kaitlyn Berwald has seen the demand firsthand. She is the coordinator of UND’s Food for Thought Food Pantry, located on the main floor of the Memorial Union.

“When I first came to UND, I didn’t realize just how widespread food insecurity really was on campus,” Berwald said. “But now as coordinator of the food pantry, I’ve met hundreds of students of all ages and from all programs who really need these basics to survive and just to be able to stay in school.

“I think it can be overlooked by other students just how serious the food insecurity issue can be. It’s just a necessity for all of us to be healthy in order to learn.”

catered food trays
One by one, lead catering cook Matt Fashingbauer slides pieces of fruit onto the kebab sticks. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

How does the program work?

First, event coordinators must check the agreement box on their online order form with University Catering. It’s a click; that’s the easy part.

Next, students must opt in to the Catering Leftovers Program through the Dining Channel on the My UND App. They’ll then begin receiving alert messages whenever opted-in events have enough leftovers for at least 10 servings.

Green explained that the leftovers also must include a protein, a vegetable and a starch before an alert will be sent. In other words, a big bowl of fruit alone will not prompt a message.

Once an alert does go out, however, the students then have 30 minutes to arrive at the location of the event to pick up a leftovers box — a student ID is required, and only one box is allowed per in-person student.

Students also must sign a waiver because University Catering cannot guarantee food safety once it leaves their right-temperature zone.

The students also are required to take the meals to go. The takeout containers and cutlery are provided by UND Student Government.

Before the Catering Leftovers Program, Green said it was not uncommon for up to 20 percent of the catered food to go to waste. That’s a healthy helping of scholarly sustenance when one considers University Catering prepares food for as many as 20 events on its busiest days. Plus, large events can account for as many as 600 guests.

The events are not all fancy sit-down dinners, but they include everything from taco bars and sandwich bars to all kinds of other buffet options. Appetizer bars also are fair game, Green says, as long as they include the proper variety of food groups.

All in all, it’s a feel-good program for everyone involved — not to mention the cooks who spend hours behind the scenes prepping and plating the food.

Sous Chef Mitch Vervalen had this to say: “It can be kind of disheartening to see all of your hard work go in the trash if people aren’t able to eat it all at the event. We’re happy to see that it can be used somewhere else and enjoyed by the students.”

And this from lead catering cook Matt Fashingbauer: “I’m definitely happy that we’re not only getting to help people, but that more people also get to see the variety of food we’re able to put out for different events.”

It really is a winner, winner, chicken dinner! Or, in this case: a winner, winner cranberry Bordelaise-braised beef short ribs dinner.

Food for Thought Food Pantry shelves
Food insecurity is a real issue, and it exists right here on the UND campus. Kristi Okerlund, director of UND Student Involvement & Parent Programs, says visits to the Food for Thought Food Pantry have more than tripled from spring to fall semesters in 2022. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

DID YOU KNOW? The Food for Thought Food Pantry expanded this year to include not only its standard nonperishable food items and personal hygiene products but also some popular perishables such as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, chicken, turkey and beef.

Students can put in an order one week and pick it up the next.

“We’ve had as many as 170 refrigerated orders per week,” Berwald said. “In fact, the need has been so high that we can barely fit all the orders in the fridge.”

A second refrigerator will be added this summer, she said. The food pantry gets funding from UND Student Government and the UND Alumni Association & Foundation but, of course, anyone can contribute.