Food waste is a worldwide epidemic – 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year, according to Newsweek. In the United States alone, food waste made up 21.3 percent of Municipal Solid Waste in 2011 – a total of 36.31 million tons of wasted food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Colleges and universities contribute a sizeable amount of food waste, as the average college student generates about 142 pounds of food waste every year, according to Recycling Works.
Given this large contribution, sustainability and food waste management is in the works for college dining services across the country, and the University of Connecticut is no exception.
“I will tell you that waste, right now, is probably one of the hottest topics nationally for college and university dining programs. There’s no doubt about it,” UConn Dining Services assistant director Michael White said.
White has worked for UConn Dining Services for over 20 years, and is avidly involved in developing food waste and sustainability strategies in the university’s eight dining halls. He said he jumped on the issue a few years ago as a dining hall manager, and has been pushing sustainability ever since.
This past year Dining Services took part in the Green Office Certification Program, held annually by UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy and was awarded the platinum (the highest) level of certification, Adrianna Antigiovanni, fourth-semester environmental studies major and EcoHusky Co-President, said.
Dining Services is in accordance with many groups on campus, including EcoHusky, the Office of Environmental Policy, the Spring Valley Student Farm and several others. They’ve also gotten involved with local farms, including several in Connecticut, and continue to donate perishable leftovers to places like the Covenant Soup Kitchen on a daily basis.
“I will say, the last couple of years on this campus, Dining Services has connected with academia in ways I’ve never seen in my 20 years here,” White said. “All of a sudden there’s people on all sides of issues talking about them from many perspectives.”
Currently, Dining Services is focusing on several initiatives aimed at reducing pre-consumer waste, which only includes kitchen prep waste and leftover food not eaten by students, even if served.
“All of Dining Services’ efforts show their true commitment to operating as sustainably as they can, whether it be by reducing food waste or installing energy and water efficient kitchen appliances,” Antigiovanni said.
One of those appliances is the Ecorrect machine, which breaks down food waste into compostable material. At this time, the compost is not being used at the university’s farm because it is undergoing testing to see if it’s suitable for use. Dining Services is currently looking into the best options for composting.
Additionally, Putnam Refectory will receive the university’s first EnviroPure system, which turns food waste into gray water. White said he hopes that someday the machines will be able to generate enough water to be reused as toilet water at the water treatment plant.
However, EcoHusky is more interested in reducing post-consumer waste, which consists of only the food that students put through the dish return after finishing meals.
EcoHusky conducts annual food waste studies to reduce student wastefulness through outreach mechanisms, Christen Bellucci, fourth-semester environmental studies major with a human health concentration and EcoHusky Co-President, said.
After EcoHusky’s last food waste study, they put up signs with the food waste data as an educational and awareness tool, Antigiovanni said, but they have no set plans to put up more signs, at least until after their next study, which will be in the spring of 2017.
Bellucci said a personal goal of hers is to conduct these studies more frequently, since they have found that students respond well to these personal, visual reminders to take only what you plan to eat.
“We would like to move beyond the focus of just food rotting in landfills contributing to climate change and to a more nuanced view, such as how it was grown/produced, laborers, transportation and what it really means when you throw away food,” Antigiovanni said.
One thing students may have noticed in the dining halls about 20 minutes before close is less of a spread of food items available. Many dining halls are reducing the amount of food put out – such as putting out half pans instead of full pans – to avoid unnecessary waste.
“I don’t want it to look like we’re cheap, and I certainly don’t want it to look like we don’t have food, but we’re trying to minimize our exposure for things that would potentially have to get thrown out,” White said.
Dining Services is also using three different tracking strategies spread among the dining halls: LeanPath, FoodPro and Phood Solutions. Entering data into these programs is manual and each item must be weighed individual, adding extra tasks for dining managers. South, North, Whitney and Putnam (while it was operating) seem to be doing the best job when it comes to inputting their information consistently. Despite this, White said everyone is on board.
“When I was a dining hall manager four or five years ago, I was running Gelfenbien, and I watched how we dismantled the salad bar at the end of the night,” White said. “And if you watched us dismantle a salad bar four years ago…we had a garbage can next to the salad bar and (I knew) that we had a problem.”
Simply watching how much uneaten food comes into the dish return was and still remains a red flag by itself, White said.
“I’m piloting all three (tracking strategies) to try to get an understanding of where I want to be; which program is the most cost effective, user friendly and most accurately tracks what we would normally be throwing away,” White said. “My goal at the end of all this is which one of these three things or in what combination are we going to use from now on for measuring waste for everybody (in all dining halls)?”
Phood Solutions LLC is a food waste reduction startup company co-founded by Luc Dang, Nick Kruczek and Mike Morton, two recent UConn alumni and one current UConn senior, respectively. They’ve been working with Dining Services since spring 2015 to develop their food waste tracking system, which includes an overview, food log, notifications, reports, goals and references/tools, according to getphood.com.
“We started to see a trend between all of these other universities. I was looking into Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College, Wesleyan University and Connecticut College, in addition to Yale and UConn,” Dang said. “A lot of universities – I will give them credit – are taking steps towards (food waste reduction), but what we noticed was they aren’t necessarily software steps,” Dang said.
Dang said that software programming provides additional analytics to help UConn track food waste in a way they couldn’t before.
White said with the use of LeanPath, which assigns a dollar amount to the weight of waste based on local per unit pricing, Dining Services finally has a way to give the Phood team monetary values on the weight they’ve been measuring.
At this time, White said, the data is too raw to make sense of, he is not yet comfortable with discussing the numbers.
“I would hope that maybe sometime next semester, I’d be really at the point where managers and staff are participating in these three programs at a level that I’m comfortable to sit down and say ‘Here’s what we’re finding, here’s our numbers, I’m not afraid to share them now because they make sense,’” White said.
Phood is hoping to expand their services to engage students in the food reduction cause by creating a new app where students can indicate their favorite food items at different dining halls. This would create a conversation between students and Dining Services to reduce food waste by eliminating costs of food that are not preferred by students, Morton said.
Morton said he has created a prototype for this app, and would love to have it be ready for the fall 2016 semester.
“We definitely hope to continue (our work) as long as possible because as long as there are students going through the dining hall there will be waste,” Morton said.
Antigiovanni said Dining Services could improve their food waste campaign by adding signs in dining halls that specifically address food waste as a way to directly include students in the initiative.
“I think small but constant things like that can make a significant change in the campus culture over time,” Antigiovanni said.
Dining Services is planning to address this, and will team up with a group of students from UConn’s Agriculture School over the summer to begin relaying the message that “people tend to eat with their eyes rather than their stomachs.”
“I don’t have a staff big enough right now to do all the marketing things I would love to do, but we’re finally going to spend time with these (Agriculture students) and have a roll-out campaign for September or late August that will address how to be smarter about what’s on your plate,” White said.
White said food waste is unavoidable in any dining establishment, and the percentage can not and never will be zero, especially with unwanted “trim weight” of things like meats and vegetables. He said he assures his staff that having waste in the units is by no means punitive, but it’s all about finding out where UConn stands in its food waste, and the best strategy for fixing it.
“I feel like we’re not starting from scratch,” White said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re definitely doing a lot of little things right now to try to have this massive program in place…. If we’re going to do this right, then we have to be smart about every decision we make,” White said.