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Mitchell Scholar Tommy Tobin combats food waste


February 4, 2012.  Where does all the excess food go?  Dining facilities often overproduce, particularly if they are buffet-style.  Irish restaurants toss more than €2.5 million worth of uneaten food every week. In the United States, nearly 40% of the food produced in the country is thrown out annually. Meanwhile, others often go without. Food insecurity and hunger are on the rise, with 17.2 million households in the US lacking adequate access to healthy, nutritious foods. Food recovery is one way one of our Mitchell Scholars got food to those who needed it. 

On his campus, Tommy Tobin met potential with dedicated service. Coming to Stanford after years volunteering at a Food Bank and his school's recycling program, Tommy saw the Stanford Project on Hunger as a way to get students involved in the fight against hunger. "University students are the leaders of tomorrow. If just one of them attends an event or volunteers with us, then recognize that hunger, poverty, and homelessness are real issues that we can do something about - then we've succeeded, " Tommy said.   Engaging hundreds of students, he led the Project to collect over 14,000 pounds of excess food from campus dining facilities annually. Taken to a local non-profit, the food was used to feed 52,000 meals every year, saving that non-profit approximately $36,000 in food procurement costs. 

Tommy realized there was more to be done. Stanford was just one campus of thousands in the US.  He aimed to expand the Project at college campuses nationwide. At Stanford, he hosted national leaders on the topic, including author Jonathan Bloom.  For his plan, he earned distinction in the Stanford BASES Social Entrepreneurship Challenge and was a semi-finalist for the international Echoing Green Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship.  He presented at an international conference and was a finalist for the Clinton Hunger Leadership Award. "I recognized there was more to learn, so I decided to learn by doing," Tommy said as he explained his time spent at the Maple Street Homeless Shelter in Redwood City, CA, the White House Office of Social Innovation & Civic Participation, Ashoka, and DC Hunger Solutions. Through it all, Tommy has learned that "even in a time of abundance, there are others that go without. Small individual actions can aggregate into large-scale impact."

In Ireland next year, Tommy will be heading to Cork, Ireland's culinary capital. He will not only study law, but he hopes to learn more about Irish culture. As Irish households currently throw out 30% of the food they take into the home, Tommy will certainly have much to learn, and hopefully make a contribution on this issue while there.

Check out this video about Tommy’s work.