CHRIS BULFINCH ’18
Gripes about the food in Mather are common refrains around Trinity’s campus: like any college, students sometimes miss the freshness and taste of their favorite home-cooked meals. Similar to other colleges, Trinity’s students do not eat all of the food that is provided by the dining halls. Since the beginning of the semester, Doug Curtin ’17 has found a creative and profoundly humanitarian use for Trinity’s surplus calories. Curtin, alongside Trinity’s Swimming and Diving team and in conjunction with the staff at Mather Dining Hall, has championed the cause of delivering Mather’s extra food to the McKinney Shelter, a men’s homeless shelter located at 34 Huyshope Avenue, just east of Hartford Hospital. The program, dubbed the “Trinity College Food Recovery Network” has enjoyed more than modest initial success. In the first two weeks of the program, more than 300 pounds of food were donated that would have otherwise gone to waste.
The genesis of Curtin’s philanthropy was an accidental acquaintance that he met by chance while working as an intern at the Connecticut State Capitol: a homeless man named Jake who had been begging in the area. The two became friends after Curtin started bringing him food, and from Jake, Curtin learned of the plight of the homeless in the city of Hartford: panhandling (begging) is illegal in Hartford, and the city has scant funds for social programs to assist the homeless. “Most people can’t ask for help in certain ways,” said Curtin in an interview with the Tripod, “so they have to go to the shelters for help.”
Churches or other charitable organizations run most homeless shelters in Hartford, but McKinney is an exception; it is funded by a combination of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Hartford, and the Connecticut Department of Social Services. The shelter is housed in what used to be a fire station, located away from most of the residential neighborhoods in the area. “You see a variety of people at McKinney,” Curtin elaborated, “there’s no one make-up of a person who’s homeless; some look like they’ve been there for years and years, some fresh to the street.”
The staff at the McKinney Shelter is composed largely of volunteers, meaning that a different group of workers often greets Curtin and his compatriots each time they drop off food. Despite, “so many moving parts that have made it challenging,” the staff of the McKinney shelter is always “more than excited to help us out,” by unpacking and distributing the food, Curtin said.
The shelter has 88 beds, and offers breakfast and dinner as well as showers. Men are allowed to stay as long as 30 days, but attendance at the shelter is fairly fluid; beds are reserved based on who is sleeping in them, and unoccupied beds are often refilled quickly. Day programs help with many of the challenges faced by the shelter’s guests, including job counseling, management of drug and alcohol use, dealing with mental illness, and HIV/AIDS treatment, among other things.
Having become desensitized of the immensely difficult life facing the dispossessed of Hartford, Curtin realized how much Trinity had to offer the McKinney shelter. “I saw that food pantries didn’t have enough food and that a lot of food was being thrown out,” says Curtin, “so why not pair the two? it’s such an easy thing to do,” he added. Curtin explained that he began his initiative by contacting an organization know as the Food Recovery Network, a national effort across college campuses that fights to make sure that food that would normally be thrown out be donated. The Food Recovery Network has existed since 2011 and saved nearly one million pounds of food. Curtin was given a basic plan by the “Food Recovery Network,” and began on the simple three step process to bring the Network to Trinity’s campus.
The first step entailed writing an outline of how the Network would function on Trinity’s campus. Curtin stepped into the position of founder, and got the Swim Team behind him to support the program. They looked into the kind of food served at Mather, to determine its suitability for donation; some shelters cannot accept certain kinds of perishable foods for safety reasons.
The next step involved getting Trinity’s dining staff on board, as well as contacting Chartwell’s, the company that provides most of Trinity’s food. The Mather staff responded enthusiastically: “everybody has bought into it, the Mather staff has been helpful, they think it’s a great idea,” said Curtin. Finally, Trinity’s Senior Director of Dining Service, Toby Chenette, signed off on the project. According to Curtin, Chenette has been very helpful throughout the whole process, helping to coordinate the collection of food as well as providing packaging, which “helps out on the cost side.”
Having gotten Trinity’s Dining Service on board, Curtin began the process of food collection. Employees in Mather collected food over the course of a week, and helped Curtin and the team pack it all into cars, and it was taken to the McKinney Shelter. The first week alone saw a donation of around 165 pounds of food, which quickly established the routine for donating.
The program, which is entering its third week, is still in its developmental stage, but has already gained some traction around campus. The Student Government Association heard a presentation from Curtin, and some organizations have already expressed an interest in helping the Food Recovery Network. “There are a lot of different programs that wanted to help – there are a lot of opportunities to volunteer, we might get the fraternities involved. There’s definitely room for expansion, we’re still in the beginning phase,” says Curtin.
As far as expansion is concerned, Curtin has designs that go beyond the confines of Trinity’s campus. “If a small liberal arts school can donate almost 300 pounds of food in two weeks, imagine what a big sate school can do,” he says, “it’s such an easy thing to do – that’s what I’m trying to drive home, its so simple – other schools can see how easy it is.”
For the moment, Curtin’s activism is making inroads at Trinity, and doing a tangible good to the city of Hartford. “It’s a good opportunity for get to know the challenges that people face in our city – walking into the shelter on a Friday night, you see a lot of different faces,” reflects Curtin. The Food Recovery Network is a significant step towards integrating Trinity more into the Hartford community. Curtin’s work is an important example of simple yet impactful homegrown philanthropy, an easy and effective way to help the community that surrounds Trinity. It will be interesting to see if other students follow Curtin’s lead, finding straightforward ways to make use of Trinity’s resources to affect positive change.