A picture of a ham and cheese sandwich sparked heated discussion recently in Free Food at UR, a more than 800-member GroupMe for students to share information about free food available on campus. 

Sophomore John Bulman, who posted the sandwich image, said his intention had been to not waste extra food that he had that other people may want. But his post, which depicted a portion of a ham and cheese sandwich wrapped in plastic film, was met with divided opinions from group members.

The situation further escalated when a member under a disguised name started making jokes in the group chat. In the meantime, about 65 members were removed from or left the group on Oct. 5, and Oct. 6.

Lisa Miles, associate director of the Office of Common Ground and administrator of the Free Food at UR group chat, put a statement in the GroupMe on Oct. 10, and again on Oct. 24, in response to the incident. 

“(We) will reiterate the purpose for which it was created, to offer fresh and edible leftover food to UR students, especially those who may be food insecure, and to prevent waste. Anyone who persists in using this app for any other purposes after being asked to stop, will be removed from the group and referred for potential conduct violation. I hope we can work together to see that what happened a few weeks ago does not happen again,” Miles wrote on Oct. 24.

The GroupMe was created in the fall semester of 2018, with the help of Kayla Wise, the student coordinator of the First-Generation Program. The description of the group chat reads, “Let’s work together to end food insecurity on campus.”  

Miles said she had gotten the idea for Free Food at UR from attending the 2018 NASPA Closing the Achievement Gap Conference, where students from Washington University in St. Louis talked about the free food group chat at their school.

“I thought it was an easy way to get information to students in real-time where there's leftover food,” Miles said.

The group chat grew quickly -- around 400 people joined within the first couple of weeks after it was created. 

“We posted about it on our social media and it just caught on,” Miles said.

Julia Kelly, assistant to the vice president for Student Development, said the group chat was serving its purpose.

Kelly said she would always order a little extra food during each year’s Omicron Delta Kappa induction ceremony and reception to make sure there was enough for all attendees. However, the leftover food would often go waste after the event.

“[Free Food at UR] is a wonderful solution to this problem, and it’s also saving the university's money,” Kelly said.

Kelly shared a fun anecdote of a moment after one of the receptions.

“Everyone kind of left,” Kelly said. “There was only a faculty member talking to an alum after the event, so I decided to send a picture of the leftover food to the Free Food GroupMe.”

Kelly told the faculty member and alumnus there might be students passing by to pick up some food. But to her surprise, many students who came for the food stayed and started having conversations with the faculty member and the alumnus.

“It was so neat,” Kelly said. “It just created a second life for this event.”

Kelly said she thought there was a "big well-being factor" to the group chat.

“Somebody who’s racing from work to class might look at the GroupMe and find there’s food on their way,” Kelly said. “They’ll get the nourishment to carry them through the next class.”

Destinee Wu, SpiderNights coordinator and Cultural Adviser, has also been posting about leftover food after events. Wu agreed that the group chat is an effective way of reducing food waste.

She said the Cultural Advisers had rules about posting only after the SpiderNight ended, so there would be enough food for the attendees, and so that students who came for the food would not feel obligated to join the SpiderNight event.

“The group chat is for free food, so promoting for events is secondary,” Wu said.

Miles also said there were rules members of the group chat should follow:

  • Post again when the food is gone.
  • Don’t let cooked food sit out longer than two hours. 
  • Don’t post about anything irrelevant.

Miles said there had been students posting about silly things, such as their leftover meals from The Cellar late at night.

“It’s not funny for people who take it seriously,” Miles said. “I try not to weigh in with it too much, so we appointed student moderators last semester. It’s best if it’s just students talking with each other.” 

But on Oct. 5, when the ham-and-cheese sandwich photo was posted, Miles and sophomore Marissa Goodall, a student moderator, both had to weigh in several times because of the escalated situation.

Bulman said the leftover ham and cheese sandwich had been cut out from a party-size sandwich from a tailgate for the UR football game earlier that day. 

Miles said it had been hard for group members to tell from the picture whether the food was untouched and fresh.

Soon after the picture was posted, the group began debating over the true intention of the post. Because Free Food at UR is an open group where members can remove each other, several members started to remove the people they were arguing with.

Some members also started polls such as: “Is a ham and cheese sandwich actual food?” “Create new free food chat without abusive admins?” and “Is mayonnaise an instrument.”

Bulman said he had found the chat to be helpful, and that he had been surprised when he had checked the group chat later and saw so many people were upset with his post.

“I have talked with some members of the group outside the chat,” Bulman said. “But I was hesitant to say anything in the chat as I feel anything I said could easily lead to me getting kicked from the chat.”

In the aftermath of the incident, Miles said: “A good number of students at UR are receiving financial aid, and there are students having busy lives and having to skip meals. The free food GroupMe could mean a lot to those students.” 

Miles wrote in the statement she posted in the GroupMe that repeated trolling would now be referred to the dean's office for a possible conduct violation. She said she hoped there would be no more problems, and that it was nice to see people using the app again for its intended purposes.

Contact news writer Haley Zhao at haley.zhao@richmond.edu.