Food Recovery Network volunteers redistributed several hundred pounds of food after the University of Maryland’s homecoming football game last fall. (Food Recovery Network)

Not to make you feel guilty, but think for a minute about what you threw out of your refrigerator this week: that wilted lettuce, the yogurt that had passed its expiration date, the Tupperware full of mac and cheese that the kids had to have but never finished. It adds up.

Now imagine the amount of wasted food in a huge cafeteria that serves thousands of meals each day, a place like the South Campus Dining Room at the University of Maryland. That’s what three students did one day back in 2010. The quantities of soup, roast turkey, pasta and salads were so jaw-dropping, they decided to do something about it. They created the Food Recovery Network.

Initially, the project was limited in scope, remembers 23-year-old Ben Simon, the network’s co-founder and executive director. Once a week, five volunteers would show up at the South Campus dining hall to pick up leftovers and drive them to area shelters. Even that modest effort yielded huge hauls of food, an average of 150 to 200 pounds each night. By 2012 graduation, the network had donated about 30,000 meals to Washington shelters.

Not content with that, the network began working with other universities to start their own recovery programs. Last year, students at 12 campuses “rescued” 120,000 pounds of food, mostly from dining halls but in some cases from off-campus restaurants and other venues.

Food waste is shaping up to be a big issue in 2013. The numbers show why. Americans throw out 40 percent of their food, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, a total of $165 billion worth of food each year. In food service alone, including restaurants and cafeterias, waste accounts for $8 billion to $20 billion, according to LeanPath, a company that provides automated food waste tracking systems.

Food Recovery Network volunteer Valerie Caplan is ready to redistribute leftovers after a University of Maryland football game. (Food Recovery Network)

Food recovery isn’t new, of course. DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that serves meals to the needy and provides culinary job training, is a pioneer in food rescue; last year its Campus Kitchens Project, in which students transform unused fresh food from dining halls, grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets into meals, recovered more than 400,000 pounds of food. But bringing food recovery to more colleges is important, says Dana Gunders, the author of the National Resources Defense Council report.

“Wasting food is a learned behavior,” she said, noting that the amount Americans throw away has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s. “By recovering food on college campuses, it trains young people to be aware of this issue. Just having it on the radar will help people make the right choices.”

University of Maryland Dining Services was aware that it was wasting food, says Bart Hipple, its assistant director of communications. It had removed trays from one of its dining halls, a popular strategy on college campuses that discourages students from taking more than they need and reduces energy and water consumption because the trays don’t have to be washed. But until the Food Recovery Network students showed up, there was no easy way to donate leftovers.

“We could not find an organization to come get it. And we’re not in the business of [delivering] food somewhere,” Hipple said. The Food Recovery Network “came in and saw a problem, a problem we were aware of that we could not solve. They removed a lot of the roadblocks and fought to a solution.”

The Food Recovery Network’s success is rooted in its structure. The group doesn’t rely on one team of volunteers to make its late-night pickups and deliveries. Instead, it taps into the dozens of student organizations on campus, including religious and cultural groups, fraternities and sororities, many of which require members to perform community service. More than 200 volunteers pick up at dining halls and after football and basketball games. A manager with food-safety training oversees each pickup, and all volunteers receive lessons in safe-food handling, including the importance of wearing gloves, keeping foods within prescribed temperatures and other precautions.

One of the beneficiaries is the Christian Life Center of Riverdale, just over a mile from the College Park campus. Students drop off food there twice a week and after sporting events. “You can feed 1,000 people with the food from a football game,” says pastor Ben Slye. “Hundreds of chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs.”

There’s also a good supply of more-healthful food. Slye, who takes photos of every recovery, sees trays of steak, chicken, tuna, salmon, pasta salads, fruit, “everything you can think of.” The center feeds 400 people a week: twice a month at its headquarters and at several partner soup kitchens to which it delivers food. (It also has its own food recovery program; each week it picks up and distributes as much as 25,000 pounds of fresh produce from distributor Taylor Farms.)

“I am just amazed by these kids,” Slye says. “They take their own time, their own vehicles, their own money for gas. And they are so committed. They have a tight schedule. They are always there.”

The network now includes chapters at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and University of Texas at Austin. Still, notes director Simon, as many as 75 percent of college campuses have no food-recovery program in place. He says that adds up to 22 million meals that could be given to people in need. “We want to unite colleges that do have programs and build a movement at colleges that don’t,” he says. “We envision the end of unnecessary food waste.”

It’s a lofty goal. But there may be another measure of success: putting yourself out of a job. Eighteen months after they began, University of Maryland students no longer pick up at the South Campus dining hall after waste there virtually disappeared. Administrators, who are now paying closer attention to food waste, decided to extend the dining hall’s hours so that it now sells out of many of its prepared meals.

“We have to give them some of the credit for it,” said the dining services’ Hipple. “We became more aware, and we figured out a way to make change.”

Black, a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.