Food Waste on College Campuses

Features, News

By Elyssa Abbott

One in six Americans are unsure where their next meal will come from, even though 40% of food prepared never even touches the plate.

“Certainly, the statistics on waste and food insecurity are staggering and it is natural to wonder why one issue [waste] isn’t being used to address the other [hunger],” said Brenna Ellison, associate professor in Agriculture and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois. “Even though there is legislation to protect organizations who donate uneaten food in good faith, many are still concerned that they could be held liable if someone were to get sick from the donated food. One way to increase benefits to donating organizations would be to provide some sort of tax incentives where they would be willing to incur the costs of redistributing food.”

According to HuffPost, 130 billion pounds of food are discarded each year. U.S. colleges alone waste 22 million pounds of food per year. Due to the popular buffet style found on college campuses, food waste is overwhelmingly high. In addition to the “all-you-care-to-eat” dining approach the University of Georgia and schools around the country follow, the conveyor belt designed to transport dishes back to the kitchen allows students to not feel responsible for the waste they created. A common characteristic of college students is saving the most amount of money possible, which leads to purchasing groceries in bulk. Often times, the food will spoil before eaten.

In American colleges, a meal plan that typically includes five meals a week can cost anywhere from $720-$1850 for a single semester. Students understand that this is pricey and will fill multiple plates of food to receive the full value out of their meal plan investment. As imagined, the wide array of options found in dining halls skews perception to overestimate how much they can actually eat. After paper, food waste is the second largest contributor to waste due to the carelessness of college dining hall tactics.

The 22 million pounds of food colleges waste each year also includes food that never touches the plate. Dining hall food managers have the incredibly difficult job of estimating how many students will visit the dining hall that particular day, as well as determining the amount of food each will eat. Different foods and genres will be eaten more than others, so this task provides a challenge. Colleges across the country have begun implementing programs and different approaches to college dining.

The University of Georgia is one of the few schools that have switched to, “tray-less,” dining halls. This cuts down on the amount of plates a single student can carry. Still, colleges often use the “all-you-care-to-eat” (AYCTE) aspect to their advantage when recruiting.

“However, an a la carte or pay by weight pricing system would most likely result in less waste as students now have a financial incentive to think more carefully about the foods they select and waste,” Ellison said. “Other ways dining halls could reduce waste could be by using different serviceware (e.g., smaller plates, smaller scoops); offering samples; or pre-portioning items (instead of self-service). Each potential change has its own associated costs, though, which have to be considered. For example, offering samples may reduce food waste but could increase packaging waste (extra sample cups/silverware) or water use (if sample dishes are used).”

Simple solutions may be the most efficient way to overcome drastic food waste. A 2011 study with 600 university student participants found that more than 57 grams of food were wasted per student. After researchers issued a message to the students about food waste, it decreased by 15 percent. Posting signs in the dining halls could be an easy fix to diminish food waste on campus. Dining halls choosing to reduce portion sizes or reuse untouched leftovers are possibilities, but come with liability risk and controversy. At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, resident halls have received solar-powered food composters to accommodate those that choose to grocery shop. The University of California, Davis, has started a student led program that collects near 2,000 pounds a week in carrot peels and coffee grounds from the school’s waste to compost the items into a material donated to community gardens. Food Recovery Network, a well-known student driven program at the University of Maryland, recovered 30,000 meals compiled of untouched leftovers in their first active year. The meals were given out around the D.C. area, a community where one in seven households struggle with hunger.

The immense amount of waste that comes from college campuses, communities that receive recognition for cutting-edge innovations and renowned studies, should outrage people. Colleges have the resources to fix this problem and improve hunger rates in the U.S., as well as elsewhere. Typical buffet style dining halls serve as a detriment to those that struggle with hunger, simply because loading an unnecessary amount of food onto a plate   appeals to 18 year olds when searching for higher education.

In a 2013 article with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation , José Graziano da Silva, director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said a solution has to happen.“We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices, when 870 million people go hungry every day.”