Waste Not: INVST Students Dedicate Their Academic Year to Community Service Projects

On average, 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste while one-sixth of the population is considered food insecure. Recognizing the interconnectedness of these two issues, students at the University of Colorado Boulder are partnering with local organizations and businesses to redirect otherwise wasted food and make a difference in the lives of the Boulder County’s hungry.

Students in the INVST Community Leadership Program, Helen Katich and Nora Leccese, participated in an internship with the local non-profit, Boulder Food Rescue, last year. The relatively new non-profit collaborates with local restaurants and grocery stores to collect good-but-damaged or day-old food destined for the landfill and then delivers the food— most often via bicycle— to local food banks and food kitchens serving Boulder’s homeless and hungry.

“There is enough food waste in Boulder County to feed every at-risk and hungry person in Boulder County,” said Katich, a senior in geography and the INVST Community Leadership Program.

Katich and Leccese continue to volunteer and are now board members for Boulder Food Rescue, and together with INVST student Xavier Rojas they are helping evaluate and strengthen Boulder Food Rescue and its work with donors, recipient groups, and volunteers. The students’ involvement in the organization is the focus of their INVST SOL (Serving, Organizing, Leading) Project — the centerpiece of their second academic year in the INVST program.

The INVST Community Leadership Program is not your average academic program.

Each year, it enrolls up to 18 students who are committed to making a positive difference with their lives by engaging in compassionate action. Over the course of two years, students enroll in theory courses and community service projects.

Under the supervision of CU-Boulder instructors and community advisors, students hone their leadership skills and learn new skills by researching, designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating their SOL Project throughout the academic year.

In November, second-year INVST students presented their SOL Projects to a standing-room-only crowd that included first-year INVST students, community partners, and other campus supporters.  The food redistribution venture is but one of many in-progress projects. INVST students are also leading projects aimed at closing the achievement gap in local schools, developing a youth center in Lafayette, and supporting community laborers.

Earlier in the semester, the class heard from Dr. David Silver, an adjunct professor in the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities and assistant professor at the CU-Denver School of Public Health.

After decades of leading international research and development programs, Dr. Silver offered INVST students insight into conducting successful community-led projects. He detailed the Participatory Action Research model and how he has applied it as an advisor for health projects in Vietnam, Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, India, and the West Bank. Silver emphasized that participatory research means involving local people in analysis of issues, design of the solutions, and sustainable implementation.

Not unlike the INVST students and their SOL Projects, Dr. Silver’s work began with his involvement with a community project as an undergraduate student in New York.

“When I was your age, I went to Cornell and was involved in a project sponsored by the Ford Foundation to support the health of specifically the rural poor in the areas surrounding Ithaca,” he told the class in September. “That was the first founding of the work I do. It really planted the seed.”

The INVST students’ SOL Projects are set to grow into next semester and beyond. Each group took careful measures to work alongside community  partners and with local advisors, so that their involvement is helpful today and sustainable into the future.

The students supporting Boulder Food Rescue aimed to help build volunteer membership, provide value to food donations, and act as a resource for the other cities interested in replicating their food-rescue model. 

“We are working to make it more effective,” Leccese said. “We have a lot of work to do in strengthening all the different factions of Boulder Food Rescue.”