Union Street Market contributes to food waste, says employee

Students who live on and off campus go to the Student Union during the day to buy meals, do work, and sit with friends. A recent increase in positive waste water sampeling from the union lead Uconn to encourage students who spend alot of time intin the Union to get tested for COVID-19. Erin Knapp/The Daily Campus

An employee at University of Connecticut’s Union Street Market anonymously sent part of an email from their supervisor to the Daily Campus that states its policy of firing workers for eating food that would otherwise be thrown out.  

“People have been taking/given food at the end of their shifts. I want to make it known now that that counts as stealing, and you can be fired for it,” the email read. “No matter how much food is being thrown out at the end of the day, you are not allowed to take any.” 

The anonymous employee said they have not been given an explanation for this policy, and they said they are startled by the amount of trash they take to the dumpster.  

“It’s at least two or three pretty heavy trash bags of food every night, mostly meat. I have to hold them with two hands and they’re still warm,” the employee said.  

Nell Srinath, a third-semester political science major and president of UConn UNCHAIN, spoke on this in an in-person interview. They criticize how this policy is emblematic of larger cultural issues. 

“This reflects a widespread culture of criminalizing poverty and economic insecurity. Everyone should be entitled to food as a human right; we need it to survive,” Srinath said. 

In a 2019 survey administered by UConn, “Storrs reported 35% low or very low food security.” This number refers only to UConn students and does not include full-time employees. 

Michael White, associate director of dining services, said in an email that there are certain food donation strategies in place. Sandwiches and salads that are wrapped in plastic are consolidated across campus as various cafes close, ending up at Bookworms. UConn’s Community Outreach program typically donates what is not sold by Bookworms to the Willimantic soup kitchen the next day. He said this program has not been running this semester due to short staff, though it is set to restart next week.  

As for the meat that is not sold by Union Street Market, it seems there is no donation process, according to the employee.  

Srinath calls this an issue of budgeting, referencing how money spent on food that is wasted could be spent on other things. 

Mike O’Dea, vice president of student affairs and dining services, explained in a phone interview how UConn has improved its food waste system in the last 10 years.  

“Ten years ago, all food waste, including scraps, leftovers and overproduction in the kitchen all went into the municipal waste stream. In Connecticut, municipal waste streams go to incinerators, which is a big greenhouse gas generator,” O’Dea said.  

The Union dining menu includes burritos, noodles, wraps, sandwiches, and soups. Other options include mac n’ cheese and products from the convenience store. Nicole Jain/The Daily Campus

Now, according to O’Dea, all dining locations utilize Lean Path, an analytical software that allows culinary staff to forecast consumption and reduce pre-consumer food waste. Excess food is either repurposed into other meals or sent to Quantum BioPower, a Southington-based natural gas facility.  

According to O’Dea, Quantum has been partnered with the dining halls since 2018 and added Union Street Market, One Plate Two Plates and Earth Wok and Fire more recently.  

“Quantum Biopower uses an anaerobic digester to transform pre- and post-consumer food waste into biogas that powers Connecticut communities and also turns waste to compost,” according to the UConn Dining Services website

Biogas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “is an energy rich gas… composed mostly of methane (CH4), the same compound in natural gas, and carbon dioxide (CO2).” 

The Office Sustainability’s “Food Waste” page explains Quantum Biopower’s operations.  

“Naturally occurring methane, a strong greenhouse gas produced by food decomposition, is captured and used as a biofuel to power local municipal buildings. Through combustion, methane is reduced into a far less potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. A compost like co-product is also produced and sold as a soil amendment,” the page reads. 

All eight of UConn’s dining halls have green certifications, which grades waste reduction and recycling among seven other criteria, while the Union Street Market “has not gone through the Green Restaurant certification program,” according to White. 

Srinath said they are concerned about the sustainability of the food waste produced by UConn.  

“There’s a concerning comfort with waste as we are dealing with the climate crisis, a huge ecological problem,” Srinath said. 

Srinath wants students to communicate information and organize on the issue of food waste. 

“There’s a lot of pent up passion, but no outlet for food waste issues,” Srinath said. “There’s no clear solution or dialogue between students, faculty and staff. With lack of receipts and knowledge, it’ll be hard to facilitate a dialogue until students actually mobilize. Organizing around food waste is a goal that the student activist community should work on.” 

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