Food waste is the perfect topic for an environmental science and policy class. It is omnipresent yet not as polarizing as climate change, offers a rich playground for solutions from engineering to the social sciences and the arts, and provides students with meaningful forms of agency on their college campuses.
Why are we still grappling with food waste on our campuses?
In part, it’s the sheer scale of the issue: every year, an estimated 130 billion pounds of food are discarded in the United States, amounting to about $160 billion in lost monetary value – the equivalent of $500 per capita. This amount includes 22 million pounds from U.S. colleges, according to estimates by the Food Recovery Network.
The pervasive practice of wasting food stands sharply at odds with the number of people who need it: nearly 15 percent of the population, or 47 million people, live below the federal poverty line. One of poverty’s ugly tentacles is food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines 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. Thus, food waste on such a large scale is not only an economic loss, but it is also socially unjustifiable.
From an environmental perspective, food requires substantial amounts of water, energy and land to produce. One pound of beef, for example, requires 1,847 gallons of water, 52 pounds of cattle feed, 260 square feet of land to grow the feed and releases 20 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Pesticides and herbicides, which are widely used in our agricultural system, endanger the health of farm workers, kill wildlife and contaminate our drinking water. Unsustainable farming practices contribute to soil erosion, salinization and biodiversity loss. Food waste is also the single largest waste stream entering municipal landfills, where its anaerobic decomposition can release methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
How can colleges reduce food waste?
There is good news, however: survey data show that the vast majority of us (>80 percent) feel bad about throwing away food. Although the average college student throws away 142 pounds of food per year, higher education has also been at the forefront of some of the most innovative and successful ideas for combating food waste. The rationales for action are unambiguous and embraced by students, faculty and administration alike: reducing food waste in dining halls and cafeterias reduces cost for food purchase and garbage pick-up, which helps keep tuition increases under control; food re-distribution can mitigate food insecurity among students, a widely ignored but significant problem; and food waste provides plentiful educational and community building 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.
What are the barriers to drastically reducing, or even eliminating, food waste on college campuses?
For one, the traditional practice of serving meals buffet-style in dining halls means that college dining-hall managers have to estimate how much and what students will eat for each meal of the day. Rather than risk running out of food, they often put out more than is actually consumed. Another reason why dining halls throw out food is that once it has been touched, even if only with a serving spoon, health regulations prevent it from being sent or donated to food kitchens and other recipients. Psychology and dining-hall operation practices also play a role: the way food is positioned and presented is often a function of the ergonomics of the food preparation process, because dining-hall managers want to avoid safety risks and repetitive-stress injuries among their staff. Setting out whole, sliced pizza pies, for example, is a single-step process for the kitchen staff, but it encourages students to take more than they will actually eat. Trays facilitate service and flow efficiency in dining halls, but having them usually results in 25-30 percent more food waste than tray-less operations. Similarly, conveyor systems for students to return their dirty dishes for cleaning are optimized for a fast flow of plates, cups and utensils and often push food waste separation onto the kitchen staff, thereby removing the students’ moral accountability for the waste they’ve generated.
Cafés and other food-service facilities on campus are typically operated under contract by food companies, so their food marketing and sales strategies may not be aligned with the objective to minimize food waste.
Lastly, residence halls with kitchens and much-loved mini-fridges in student rooms also contribute to food waste, especially if it’s too difficult or costly for students to shop frequently and purchase only as much as they’ll actually eat. Older kitchen designs and socially uninviting shared spaces may discourage students from cooking and enjoying meals together, a practice that limits food waste.
10 steps every college campus can take to reduce food waste
There are students, faculty, staff and administrators at virtually all college campuses who have reduced or are eager to reduce food waste. Here are ten steps that are easy to implement, but still yield measurable results and provide other indirect benefits:
- Form a committee or task force on food waste. This can be part of an existing sustainability group or department. It’s important that all key stakeholders are represented, i.e., students, facilities and dining services, faculty, staff and the administration.
- Connect with one of several nationwide or regional campus food-waste reduction networks such as the Campus Kitchen Project, the Food Recovery Network or the Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN). These groups can provide support and know-how from starting up an initiative to making it economically self-sustaining, or to becoming a zero-waste campus. Nobody needs to go it alone!
- From the beginning, set clear goals and develop a collaborative strategy, e.g., by integrating food-waste reduction goals into the campus sustainability plan. The key ingredients to a successful initiative are: (1) clear and widely supported statement of goals and vision, (2) transparency and clarity in distribution of responsibilities, (3) specified timeline, (4) budget estimate and identified source(s) of funding, and (5) metrics for tracking progress.
- Start with the low-hanging fruit, because the list is long. This includes: going tray-less; adding signage in dining halls, cafés and residence halls about the hidden social and environmental costs of food waste; changing events from lunch boxes to help-yourself food service; redesigning food presentation and positioning in dining halls, and holding educational seminars and events on cooking with leftovers or how to shop smart.
- Work with dining services, café operators and food vendors to examine options for reducing portion sizes, re-designing plate or tray returns and the amount of food that gets touched/contaminated during food-service hours.
- Establish a food collection and redistribution system to serve food-insecure students on campus. Connect with local soup kitchens to identify opportunities and requirements for delivering surplus foods to them.
- Connect or expand the food-waste reduction strategy to an overall waste-reduction strategy, including composting and the 3Rs: reduce-reuse-recycle.
- Work with faculty to integrate food-waste reduction into courses or create new ones. Food waste is a topic that can be looked at from virtually every discipline.
- Share your experiences at conferences such as AASHE’s annual meeting. There are other campuses that are just at the starting point and want to learn from your experiences.
- Don’t forget to have fun!
Food waste reduction efforts at Harvey Mudd College
Harvey Mudd College is a small STEM-focused liberal arts college in Southern California. Educating engineers, scientists and mathematicians who become leaders in their fields and have a clear understanding of the impact their work has on society has long been the college’s mission. With the launch of the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design in 2015, Harvey Mudd College has started a new chapter: looking to integrate sustainability into campus operations, course curriculum and research.
Waste reduction is one of the Hixon Center’s focus areas. Using data from two campus-waste audits, the Center teamed up with students from our campus sustainability group (ESW/MOSS), Facilities & Maintenance, the campus dining hall (managed by Sodexo) and the City of Claremont to divert most compostable waste from landfills and to make further progress in reducing food waste across campus. The dining hall is already tray-less, but starting this fall, we are calling on everyone to reduce their food waste. With the help of educational signage, students will be required to separate compostable and recyclable material from landfill trash prior to returning their dishware, making food waste more apparent and encouraging students to reduce their waste. As part of broader waste reduction goals, uniform 3-compartment waste receptacles will be distributed campus-wide, and as part of a student-led initiative, two residence halls will receive a shared solar-powered composter. Our Green Office Program, which emphasizes waste reduction in a number of areas, will certify its first academic departments and administrative offices this fall.
Food waste concerns all of us, and more work lies ahead. It does take a village, as the saying goes, but seeing our community rally and thrive in these efforts is a sure sign that we will be successful.
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