Turkey Thicket Rescued Food

Preventing Food Waste from Summer Meal Programs

Lessons from the DC Department of Parks and Recreation and Food Rescue US Partnership

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DPR staffers at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5 hold up pre-packaged summer meals. Extra meals from Turkey Thicket were directed to Damien Ministries. (Photo by Kate Urbank)


Wasted food has been a chronic problem for sponsors of USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which ensures that children in low-income communities have access to food even when school is not in session. Each year the site sponsors, who serve food, grapple with the question of how to order the correct number of meals when they don’t know how many children will need to eat on any given day.

Meals are wasted when there is a mismatch between the number of meals ordered and the number of meals served, a gap that arises from uncertainty around how many meals the sites could expect to serve. In 2017, over 19,000 SFSP meals went to waste in DC. To prevent more meals from going to waste, Karyn Kennedy, the Program Specialist for the Summer Food Service Program at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) reached out to Food Rescue US to arrange for delivery leftover summer meals to organizations in need, provided technical assistance to sponsors, and recruited Meggan Davis (DC Department of General Services) and Kate Urbank (Food Rescue US) to train sponsors on food rescue.

DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) was selected to pilot a food program due to the potential for impact—DPR is the largest SFSP sponsor with between 140-177 summer meal sites–and an expressed interest in reducing waste. In past years, DPR has seen about ten percent of their Summer Meals Program meals go to waste. Supervisory Food Program Specialist Angela Tucker led the effort for DPR by monitoring waste, adjusting ordering habits and working directly with Food Rescue and its volunteers.

As a result of this coordinated effort, DPR had 3,053 fewer leftover meals in 2018 than in 2017, saved thousands of dollars, and kept hundreds of meals from going to waste by delivering them to fifteen local DC community hunger partners.


Here’s how they did it—and how other Summer Meals Program sites can too:


  • Create community connections and train staff. Before the Summer Meals Program began, Angela Tucker and Kate Urbank of Food Rescue US strategically selected sites for the food recovery pilot program to provide meals to neighboring area organizations in wards 5, 7 and 8. Urbank sought out community hunger partners who needed and greatly appreciated the leftover prepared meals from the DPR sites, while Angela Tucker, her DPR Nutrition Services team and dedicated seasonal food monitors ensured that on-site staffers were trained on how to set aside and store leftovers for pickup.


  • Recruit volunteers. In addition to the many “Food Rescuers” already registered in the Food Rescue US app, Urbank worked with Angela Tucker and DPR’s communication team to recruit new volunteers through their social media platforms. Once registered, Food Rescuers were matched through the app to routes connecting the various DPR sites to neighboring receiving agencies and made the food deliveries using their own cars. Anyone with a car can be a food runner)


  • Continually evaluate orders. Over-ordering is the root cause of wasted summer meals. Angela Tucker, along with her DPR Nutrition Services team and seasonal food monitors, closely tracked the number of meals ordered and served at each site and adjusted orders daily to ensure that margins reflected actual levels of service. Eliminating fixed margins (a specific number of extra meals at each site) in favor of responsive ordering ensures that sponsors purchase an appropriate number of meals for each site. Thanks to close communication between Food Rescue US and DPR, waste decreased significantly. By the end of the summer, most food rescues had grown smaller and, at some locations, were canceled altogether.

Partner organizations reported being grateful for the meals they received and looking forward to the anticipated expansion of the summer meal food recovery program.

Since 2012, more than  6.6 million summer meals have been served through the DC Free Summer Meals program in Washington, DC. DPR sites account for about a quarter of all Summer Food Service Program sites in DC and a small fraction of the number of sites nationwide. There are several types of organizations that help to distribute these meals each summer, including schools, faith-based programs, non-profit camps, non-profit organizations, and recreation centers. This summer, sponsors of all types have an opportunity to keep many of these meals from going to waste.

Are you sponsoring a summer meal site in DC? To learn more about how your organization can cut costs and reduce waste, contact Karyn Kennedy (karyn.kennedy@dc.gov).

Not a summer meal sponsor, but want to help? Download the Food Rescue US app to volunteer as a food rescuer and connect summer meal sites to community hunger organizations.