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Colleges Reducing Food Waste and Greening the Earth

How institutions are finding resourceful, sustainable solutions
University Business, Sep 2010

Colleges and universities cut food waste by instituting trayless dining, by buying smarter and by other means. But at the end of the day there is still food waste. Increasingly, schools are finding creative ways to deal with it.

"Usually students take as much as they think they can eat," says Nori Yamashita, director of food service operations at the University of Denver (Colo.). "Once they sit down and start to eat, they realize they took too much."

Composting is the solution of choice for many schools. For a growing number of them, it is a full circle practice. Messiah College (Pa.), for example, saves compost that has no animal or meat byproducts for students to use to fertilize an organic garden.

"We have one of the 11 shares of the garden, and they sell the others to sustain the cost of the garden," says Mark Wirtz, director of dining at Messiah. "Our composting and student garden show our awareness for reducing waste and practicing sustainability."

Meredith College (N.C.) connects the college to community businesses. Each week during the growing season, BeauSol Gardens, a local farm, delivers fresh seasonal produce to Meredith employees and students who have purchased shares.

Colleges are being more careful about how much food they prepare.

"Through the program, the Meredith community is able to access local organic produce right on campus," explains Laura Fieselman, sustainability coordinator at Meredith. "Then, a BeauSol farmer buys our compost for his farm from Brooks Contractor, the same company that composts Meredith's food waste, bringing the program full circle."

At Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.), students living in an eco-conscious dorm called GreenHouse use the compost from the campus dining halls for their organic garden.

Composting isn't the only thing schools do with their waste. Some like Susquehanna University (Pa.) recycle when possible. "We collect our used cooking oil in barrels, and students come pick it up for various projects," says Robert Ginader, food services director at Susquehanna. "This year, students will be processing it on campus."

Lebanon Valley College (Pa.) works with local pig farmers, feeding the pigs with scraps from dining and catering services, says Catering Director Stacy Stroup.

Legia Abatio, district marketing manager of dining services at Texas Christian University, says TCU reduces waste by only sending two bags to the landfill instead of 40, which they were doing before they had a pulper. The pulper chops up food into a fine substance and then processes it through a dehydrator that removes most of the moisture. Abatio says, "This is why it is so important to us to reduce food waste wherever possible, and to constantly be looking for ways to leave less of a carbon footprint."

Some schools take the philanthropic approach. Messiah College donates leftover food to a local mission and food bank. "We deliver food that can't freeze or hold well but can be transferred with proper food safety standards," Wirtz says.

Colleges also are more careful about how much food they prepare. Albright College (Pa.) tries to make sure they only cook what they need. "Food Services works to minimize waste with portion control on the food lines and batch cooking techniques in the kitchen," says Barbara Marshall, associate vice president for college relations and marketing.

Purchasing is also an important preventive step at Albright. "A value-added purchasing program stabilizes spikes in the commodity market and has eliminated significant food waste," Marshall says.

Many food sustainability initiatives are pushed by students. Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.) administrators asked students to identify what is important to them. "They had three answers," says Steve Kjellgren, director of dining services. "They wanted fairness; they wanted to eat any time of day; they wanted to reduce the amount of waste." One result: a la carte pricing so that a 90-pound dancer doesn't have to pay as much as a 225-pound linebacker. A la carte pricing also has the happy effect of limiting food waste.

The student group "Cougars for Change" at Misericordia University (Pa.) worked with their food service provider to measure waste on a regular day and on a trayless Tuesday. The group pushed successfully for trayless dining every day, resulting in waste dropping to 70 pounds from 100 pounds during the average lunch.

Dealing with students keeps food services directors feeling young, says the University of Denver's Yamashita. "Working on college campuses for 35 years, sometimes I forget how old I am," he notes. "I get challenged by the students to do more. I hear what they are talking about, and then I try to make changes they want."

Denver's students have helped to lead the university to compost 90 to 95 percent of food waste including drinking straws. "One thing that's neat is each year we get challenged by different students," Yamashita says. "It keeps us on our toes because we can get preoccupied by our business."

Allison Lilly was a summer intern at Dick Jones Communications in State College, Pa. She is a student at Penn State University.

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