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Waste Not, Want Not: Student's Idea Propels Seattle Pacific University Into Food Recovery Network

Bellamy Pailthorp
Maya Swinehart, a pre-med senior at Seattle Pacific University, with Sodexo's Kim Karstens, who oversees food service at the school.

There are some people who see a problem and find a solution. That’s true of one student at Seattle Pacific University who transformed her feelings about what she was observing into action. Now, her school is all set to become the first private college in Washington state to feed the homeless by recovering leftover meals, rather than letting them go to the compost bin.

21-year-old Maya Swinehart says sometimes seeing people without shelter causes her to do things many other people don’t.

“I carry like a pack of little blank cards in my vehicle when I drive around and sometimes I have, like, bottles of water for the gym. And I’ll write little notes, like ‘you have a beautiful smile’ or, like, ‘remember: you’re human,’ you know?” she says.

Swinehart seems to know herself pretty well. She says she’s always been a caring type. She’s had to deal with people telling her she shouldn’t give handouts. But she’s passionate about helping homeless people and showing them with her actions that they’re not forgotten.  

“I think just reminding someone that they’re visible and that they’re human and recognizing their humanity…giving them some dignity, shaking their hand, smiling…can be just as powerful,” as giving food, she says.

But she also knows that the connection between anxiety and hunger is real and can be powerful. So, four years ago, when she was a freshman working in the cafeteria, it bothered her to see waste bins filling up with really good food. And these were not food scraps from plates. 

 “At the end of the meal you know, just watching the food being sent back. And whether it was being composted or going into the trash…I felt like ‘this  could feed someone. You know, the people need the food, not the trash cans.”  

So she did a bunch of research, went to the head of dining services and pitched her idea.

Kim Karstens, who is the general manager of Dining Services and works with Sodexo to deliver high-quality food to the student body, says it was perfect timing.   

 “We had been talking about it at dining services for a couple of years,” And wanting to do something with the foods that we’re collecting that we know are still good-quality food. That could help the community, but at this time we were just composting with Cedar Grove,” Karstens says.

It took nearly four years of persistence, but now they’re becoming a certified chapter of a national non-profit, called the Food Recovery Network. Maya makes triumphant fists as she quietly beams about her success.

“It’s really excellent. We’ve recovered I think 460 pounds, with just six recoveries, in the past three weeks.”   

And that’s just in the main dining hall. They’re still organizing their satellite dining facilities; the meals are going to a homeless shelter in South Seattle’s Rainier Valley, called Peter’s Place.  

The students did the legwork of identifying the shelter. And once they gain certified status, they’ll have help from two other local chapters of the Food Recovery Network. That’s the power of the organization, says Sara Gassman,  director of member support for the Food Recovery Network. She says the more chapters you have, the better.

“You know, if the leadership team in one campus all has a test on Thursday and that’s the day that they’re supposed to recover food, they can maybe call on the chapter from a different campus, to pick up that shift,” Gassman says.

Washington tate now has three universities working with her organization to fight hunger in the communities they’re part of. Seattle Pacific University is set to become the first private school in the state to earn its certification. It joins the University of Washington in Seattle and Western Washington University in Bellingham. There are also several businesses involved, including Seattle’s famous Canlis Restaurant.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to