Meals on Wings: University of Kentucky student initiative re-purposes food waste to nourish their community

UK students volunteer at the Campus Kitchen in collecting, organizing and delivering nutritious meals through the Meals on Wings program.

Meals on Wings — a transformative initiative by the University of Kentucky’s Campus Kitchen — is soaring to new heights. The program, which is an integral part of the UK Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition (DHN), goes beyond providing meals to those in need. It also fosters unity within the community and tackles food waste and nutrition disparities.

“In Kentucky, the food insecurity rate for older adults is ranked one of the highest in the nation,” said Kendra OoNorasak, DHN’s director of community outreach and the grant’s principal investigator. “This means that the policies, systems, and structures that we have in place cannot reach those populations. Meals on Wings helps fill this gap while teaching our students the importance of community engagement.”

Meals on Wings, a student-run and dietitian-led program, rescues food that would otherwise be wasted, especially from local hospitals. The team converts these rescued items into 300 to 400 nutritionally balanced meals each week, emphasizing the college’s commitment to addressing food waste and nutrition disparities.

The program not only serves as a solution to food waste but also as a bridge connecting diverse students with a common goal — helping others. In a video snippet, the program coordinator expresses the team’s mission to make 80 meals that day and highlights their weekly delivery efforts.

“I’ve always been passionate about giving back and volunteering,” said UK nursing senior Sophia Bonilla, who started as a Meals on Wings volunteer, later became a shift captain, and is now a research assistant at Campus Kitchen. “Being around other students who want to make a difference is empowering. Seeing the impact that we are making on the community makes everything we do just so worth it.”

The impact of Meals on Wings extends beyond the university campus. In an initiative to reduce food waste, local hospitals also happily collaborate with the program. Leftovers are repurposed into well-balanced meals for the elderly, reinforcing the program’s commitment to ensuring that no one goes without a nutritious meal.

“It was a big deal because we would always have quite a bit of food leftover and my team was always worried about throwing it away,” said Tony Everhart, chef of the Chandler Hospital Kitchen. “We found out that some of our cooks and some of our employees get some of those meals. It means a lot to us that we are doing our part in giving back to the community.”

In interviews, passionate students share their experiences, describing the program as a unique learning environment that goes beyond the classroom. One student notes the creativity required to transform random food items into delicious, well-balanced meals. Another emphasizes the camaraderie formed when working towards a shared goal for the greater good.

“Eating and food are just integral to all of us, regardless of who we are, where we come from, what we believe in, what we study, or where we are working,” OoNorasak said. “Everybody deserves good, healthy food that is culturally appropriate and feels like home.”

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