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Sep 13 2016
by Daphine Henderson

Food Waste at U.S. Colleges: What Is It and What Can We Do About It?

By Daphine Henderson - Sep 13 2016

Food waste is a great topic for your environmental science class. While not as impactful as climate change, it is everywhere, and offers a large variety of solutions available to engineers, social scientists, and the arts; it can provide students with essential and meaningful forms of agency and feelings of making an impact on their college campuses.

The essential question is: Why are we still struggling with food waste on our campuses?

Every year, an estimated 130 billion pounds of food are discarded in the United States, leading to about $160 billion in lost monetary value. According to estimates by the Food Recovery Network, this amount also includes 22 million pounds from U.S. colleges.

The unconscious habit of wasting food is greatly at odds with the amount of people who need it: nearly 15 percent of the population (47 million people) live below the federal poverty line. One of the ugly aspects of poverty is food insecurity — the USDA defines this as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, and which contributes to trapping families in poverty.  Almost 50 million Americans (including 15 million children) live with food insecurity. Therefore, food waste on such a large scale is not only an economic issue, but is also socially unjustifiable. 

by Matt on Flickr Commons

From an environmental perspective, food requires substantial amounts of energy, land and water to produce. For example, one pound of beef requires 52 pounds of cattle feed, 260 square feet of land to grow the feed, and 1,847 gallons of water. Plus, it releases 20 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. 

Herbicides and pesticides, widely used in our agricultural system, endanger the health of farm workers, contaminate our drinking water,  and kill wildlife. Unsustainable farming practices also contribute to salinization, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity. In addition, food waste is also the single largest waste stream entering municipal landfills, where its anaerobic decomposition can release methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that has an impact 25 times greater on climate change than carbon dioxide. This makes landfills the third largest source of methane in the United States.

The next essential question: How can colleges reduce food waste?

On the bright side, survey data shows that that vast majority of us (>80 percent) feel guilty about throwing away food. Despite the fact that the average college student throws away 142 pounds of food per year, higher education has also been at the top of some of the most innovative and successful ideas for combating food waste. 

The methods for action are embraced by students, faculty and administration alike: reducing food waste in cafeterias and dining halls reduces cost for food purchase and garbage pick-up, which in turn helps keep tuition increases under control; food re-distribution can also mitigate food insecurity among students, a widely ignored but significant problem.

Food waste also provides plentiful community building and educational opportunities that build technical know-how as much as social empathy. Some states, have also passed legislation, such as California’s Assembly Bill AB 1826 in 2014, that sets statewide goals for reducing the amount of organic waste sent to landfills.

Some colleges have begun to take the plunge into reducing food waste
One college is making sure that people are educated about food waste on college campuses

What are the barriers to drastically reducing (or even eliminating) food waste on college campuses?

by MiraCosta College Buildings on Flickr Commons

The traditional practice of serving meals buffet-style in dining halls means that dining-hall managers have to estimate how much and what students will eat for each meal of the day. They often put out more than is actually consumed rather than risk running out of food. Dining halls also throw out food because once it has been touched, even if only with a serving spoon, health regulations prevent it from being sent or donated to food kitchen and other recipients.

Cafes and other food-service facilities on campus are usually operated under contract by food companies. This means that their food marketing and sale strategies may not be aligned with the objective or the goal to minimize food waste.

Lastly, residence halls with kitchens and mini-fridges in student rooms also contribute to food waste, especially if it is too costly or difficult for students to frequently shop and purchase only as much as they’ll actually eat.

10 Steps College Campuses Can Take To Reduce Food Waste

There are students, staff, faculty and administrators at virtually all college campuses who have reduced or are eager to reduce food waste. These 10 steps are easy to implement, but still create measurable results and provide other indirect benefits:

1. Form a committee or task force on food waste. 

This can be part of an existing group or department. It is important that all key stakeholders are represented, i.e., students, dining services and facilities, staff, faculty and the administration.

2. Connect with one of several regional or nationwide campus food waste reduction networks such as the Food Recovery Network, the Campus Kitchen Project or the Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN). These groups can provide support and know-how from starting up a general plan to making it economically self-beneficial, or to becoming a zero-waste campus entirely. You do not need to do it alone!

3. Begin with setting clear goals and developing a collaborative strategy, e.g., integrating food-waste reduction goals into the campus sustainability plan. The essential ingredients to a successful initiative are: 1. clear and largely supported statement of vision and goals, 2. clarity and transparency in distribution and handling of responsibilities, 3. budget estimate and identified source(s) of funding, 4. specified timeline, and 5. metrics for tracking progress.

4. Start with baby steps, because there is a long list of things to do. This includes: changing events from lunch boxes to help-yourself food service; adding signage in dining halls, cafes and residence halls about the hidden social and environmental costs of food waste; going tray-less; holding educational seminars and events on cooking with leftovers or how to shop smart and redesigning food presentation and positioning in dining halls.

5. Work with dining services, food vendors and cafe operators in order to examine options for re-designing plate or tray returns, reducing portion sizes and the amount of food that gets touched/contaminated during food-service hours.

by Ben Faulting on Flickr Commons

6. Establish a food collection and redistribution system in order to serve to food-insecure students on campus. Connect with local soup kitchens to identify opportunities and requirements for delivering surplus foods to those in need.

7. Connect or expand the food-waste reduction strategy to an overall waste-reduction strategy. This includes composting and the 3Rs: reduce-reuse-recycle.

8. Work with campus faculty to integrate food-waste reduction into courses or create new ones. Food waste is a large topic that can be looked at from virtually every discipline and every angle.

9. Share your experiences at conferences and events such as AASHE’s annual meeting. There are many other campuses that are just at the starting point and want to learn from your own experiences.

10. Work together.

Food waste concerns everyone, and more work lies down the path to more environmental sustainability. It takes more than one to make the effort worth it, but strength in numbers to make this change is a sure sign of success.

Lead Image: jbloom on Flickr Commons

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Daphine Henderson - University of Maryland, College Park

Daphine Henderson is a sophomore at the University of Maryland College Park majoring in Music Performance on Bass. She enjoys reading, writing, and anything involved with music and art. Follow her on Twitter @Guinea231 !

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