University meal plans are designed to give students some flexibility as to when - and how much - food they eat. But every week, thousands of meal vouchers at colleges nationwide go unused. And that - essentially - adds up to a lot of wasted food. As Arizona Public Radio's Parker Olson reports, a group of students at Northern Arizona University has come up with an idea to use that extra food to feed Flagstaff's hungry.
It's a chilly night in downtown Flagstaff, and Arthur Epps is on the streets with no place to stay. "Some things happened," Epps says. "I got kicked of the bus in the middle of nowhere and they stole all my stuff. Serious business, man."
That's why Epps is particularly grateful when, suddenly, a group of NAU students approaches him with the offer of a hot meal. "That's excellent you guys are out here helping the poor," says Epps. "You're helping people that are homeless."
The students are part of a new group at NAU called Make Every Transfer Count. Each Saturday, they gather unused student meal vouchers and cash them in for food. Then, they head out on the streets of Flagstaff and hand out burritos, bagels and sandwiches.
Azariah Grams, a freshman, started the meal transfer program in January. He says the idea came to him during his winter break from school. "I grabbed one of my friends and I was like, 'hey man, we've talked about doing this. Let's do it," Grams says. " It was just the two of us at first. And then next week, it was three of us, and then last week there were nineteen of us passing out food."
Grams says NAU's voucher plan allows students to buy a certain number of meals each week. If they don't use them all by Saturday night, the vouchers expire. Caitlin Fagan, also a freshman and a co-founder of the programs, says it's been well received by other students on campus because of its simplicity. "Everyone on campus really seems to like the idea," Fagan says. "Because everyone has experienced the extra transfers and they don't really know what to do with them. So, I think people like having a way to help out, a very easy way, with something you already have."
The group collects the food on campus and then splits up to distribute it around town. Some volunteers head out along Route 66. Others fan out between campus and the railroad tracks looking for people to feed. That's where they meet Clark Reber, who's down on his luck and staying at a local shelter. "It's awesome," Reber tells the students. "You guys are doing great work here. You're uplifting to people that are down and out and brining food which everyone needs."
In the month since the student-run program started, organizers estimate they've fed about 100 people. If there's any food left after their Saturday night runs, they donate it to a local rescue mission. The group hopes to keep growing and become another reliable source for feeding Flagstaff's hungry and homeless.