Patrick Rooney calls himself a “modern day hunter-gatherer.” Hunter-gatherers were nomadic, he explains. They didn’t settle in one place, waiting for berries to pop up or game to come to them; they foraged and searched for food. Rooney survived his junior year at Princeton without purchasing food in any way—he wasn’t a member of an eating club, he didn’t have a dining plan with the University, he didn’t dine on Nassau Street. Rather, he was a regular on the “Free Food” listserv.
Free Food is a self-sustaining email list through which members of the Princeton University community can transmit and receive messages regarding excess food on campus. The spoils generally come from University-sponsored events—student group- and department-organized functions are the largest culprits. A large number of talks, open houses, conferences, and workshops serve food to during the event or in receptions following. Not to mention all that comes from study breaks, which typically offer snacks as incentives to get students’ minds off problem sets and readings.
As a senior, Rooney (class of 2018) ate at least one meal a day off the Listserv—markedly less than when he was a junior, though still significant enough to raise eyebrows. Typical meals featured on the Listserv include full pizza pies or boxes of Indian or Mediterranean cuisine. But eating off the Listserv isn’t about proving that he can sustain himself outside the system. Full, nutritious meals hadn’t always been a given when he was a child. His father grew up in the sixties and seventies in rural Ireland and the Bronx and, throughout his youth, he remembers his father telling him, “You Americans have it good.” Food never went to waste in the Rooney household. When he got to Princeton, Rooney was dismayed by the pure excess on campus—most clearly shown by the amount of wasted food. And as a student on full financial aid, any money saved on food was money that could be used for creative and academic pursuits.
28 September 2017
I’m working on a year long project on food/ material waste on campus that will include a tremendous collage (like thousands of pictures of food and material waste). Being said, if you could start sending your free food emails with pictures of the spreads attached to them (or sending the pictures directly to me at prooney@) that would be great! I know this isn’t advertising free food, so I apologize.
Happy urban hunter gathering,
In September 2017, R o o n e y began asking subscribers of the Free Food listserv to include photographs in their emails. Rooney intended to compile the photographs into a collage and to and display them all over campus, especially in high-visibility areas. He came up with the idea after a hallway conversation with Eve
13 October 2017
This is just a quick reminder to keep attaching photos of the food you’re posting about to your emails as to help with the project I’m working on in conjunction with the office of sustainability.
After pitching the photo project to an administrator in the University’s Office of Sustainability, he gained the Office’s blessing and issued a message to Free Food updating subscribers on the development. With institutional legitimacy, he noticed a significant increase in the proportion of emails sent out with photos to the Listserv. However, the photos weren’t just for preparing his collage. The photos served a dual purpose: Rooney believes that they have a psychological effect—they people more likely to go to the food and eat it. “There’s a difference between getting an email saying there is free pizza and seeing a photo of twelve pies,” he explains. Seeing an opportunity to “cop a whole pie” attracts more people, and ultimately, means less food waste.
Photos sent out on the Listserv directly combat food waste, but what exactly about the plastic waste? To that, Rooney’s answer is to order less catering from Nassau Street. Because the University only supports recycling for plastics of type numbers 1 and 2 (which encompass water bottles and milk jugs among other most common containers), there is no potential to recycle much of the plastic waste from Nassau Street caterers. (Food containers and plastic utensils are typically of the rarer and more difficult-to-recycle types, no. 5 and no. 6 plastics.) The easy alternative, Rooney says, is to order catering from Campus Dining. Their catering service uses biodegradable tableware—a vast improvement over essentially unrecyclable plastics.
Though switching over to catering from Campus Dining requires an institutional approach, Rooney views individual action as the true catalyst to change. He quotes Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” He argues that we can keep the current amount of land for agriculture until 2050, but that this is only possible if we directly attack individual- based excess. He cites that about sixty percent of agricultural land is used to accommodate beef production, while about forty to fifty percent of food that reaches the individual is wasted. Switching to plant-based diets and combating individual food waste will go a far way to ensuring sustainable agriculture.
To ensure that individuals are doing all they can do on Princeton’s campus, Rooney sought to create a “Free Food Database.” The database, which he intended to be a web-based service for all Princeton students, would take the approximately six-thousand emails sent out from the Listserv and parse them for data regarding location, date, time, and food type, among other criteria, and construct visuals to make statistical inferences. Rooney also wanted to build prediction models based on the data. By accessing it, a student would be able to figure out the most likely location where food could be found, for example, on a Tuesday afternoon.
Before Rooney could finalize the Free Food Database and the photo project, he needed to complete his senior thesis—a documentary film on the effects of pollack fishing on the Alaskan salmon population. Before his senior year, he took a gap year exploring Alaska, when he came into contact with effects of the pollack fishing industry. Pollack is a cheap and abundant whitefish used by the fast food industry. Pollack fishers generally use trawlers with large nets to catch pollack en masse. Salmon is a common “bycatch” of pollack fishing, meaning it’s unintentionally caught in the trawling net. Because pollack fishers can’t legally keep them, the salmon is thrown back into the sea, yet by the time the fishers realize they have salmon on board, the fish are dead. The pollack fishing industry in Alaska has had devastating effects on native communities that depend on salmon for subsistence. Rooney began to take footage of fishing vessels during their pollack runs. As a Visual Arts concentrator focusing on film and video documentary, Rooney’s senior thesis was a compilation of footage he took in documentary format. Having graduated, he wants to continue working with nature documentary filmmaking, aspiring to do “David Attenborough-type shit.”
Rooney has left an indelible mark on the Free Food listserv, and documentary film-work has the potential to touch millions as David Attenborough’s has. Though having graduated in spring of 2018, Rooney has left behind the his ideas for a Free Food Database and, likely, attempts to lobby the University administration for a more sustainable approach to catering. Without a structure left in place to continue his work, questions of who might take up his projects on Princeton’s campus are pending. This exposes, perhaps, a limit to a project of affecting systemic change through individual action. When the impacts of environmental damage are the sum total of everyone’s contribution and will affect all life on earth, can isolated, individual actions be enough?