Sustainable America Blog

Campuses Fight Food Waste

Photo Credit: campuskitchens via Compfight cc

From trayless cafeterias, to thriving food recovery programs, to composting, college campuses and students are tackling food waste and food insecurity nationwide. Currently we waste 40 percent of our food as a nation while 1 in 6 American families don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Between dining halls, sports events and other venues, universities have plenty of opportunities to waste food. Luckily, many schools and student organizations are already addressing this issue.

Food Waste Prevention: Trayless Dining
According to the EPA, the most effective way to both save money and reduce the environmental impact of food waste is prevention. Many colleges are taking this to heart and preventing food waste in dining halls by eliminating trays, which we wrote about in April. A 2012 study documented a 32% reduction in food waste and a 27% reduction in dish use when trays were made unavailable at a university dining facility. And today, 75% of the schools tracked by the Sustainable Endowments Institute have eliminated trays in some or all of their dining facilities.

Food Recovery: Feeding the Hungry
Nationwide organizations like The Food Recovery Network and The Campus Kitchens Project are making a difference by taking food that would have been wasted at the university level and using it to feed local people struggling with food insecurity. Food Recovery Network (FRN) boasts more than 210,980 pounds of food donated since September 2011, and 34 chapters at colleges and universities nationwide. FRN takes food that has already been cooked at campus dining halls and transports it directly to food pantries and homeless shelters. The FRN National team is currently working with students at approximately 150 campuses to start new chapters. “Five years from now we hope to be on 1,000 college campuses and to have donated 10 million pounds of food,” says Ben Simon, founder and executive director of FRN.

By contrast, The Campus Kitchen Project (CKP) creates student-run kitchens that turn food that would have been wasted on campus into nutritious meals for those who are struggling with food insecurity in the community. CKP also has over 30 locations currently, and delivers meals not only to soup kitchens and food pantries, but to low-income families and individuals as well. According to the organization, in the 2012-13 school year, 5,103 CKP student volunteers recovered 404,489 pounds of food to create 279,680 nutritious meals. Students gain valuable job skills by volunteering with these programs as well. Ninety percent of CKP volunteers in leadership roles have learned to start / manage a non-profit initiative and 45 percent say participation in the program changed their career path.

Food Reuse: Composting
Composting has officially caught on at colleges and universities across the country. Dickinson College in Pennsylvania has been running a composting program since 2002, and it grows every year. It has been estimated that the Student Garden at Dickinson College composts approximately 800 pounds of food waste each week! Cornell University composted 515 tons of food scraps and organic waste from their dining facilities in the last year. Cornell is also looking into compostable plates and take-out containers. In 2009, Ohio University became the university with the largest in-vessel compost facility in the nation. The facility was expanded in 2012 to enable it to compost 100% of its pre- and post-consumer dining waste. The list goes on and on. Chances are, your local college or university is composting food waste in some way or another. And if they aren’t, let them know they’re missing out!

We are encouraged to see colleges and universities fighting food waste by putting their waste to work for the community in the form of warm meals for the hungry and compost to grow more food. It’s great to see young people establishing positive habits surrounding food waste that they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives. We saw firsthand just how hard students are willing to work on this issue when we called for volunteers to help us collect food waste at SXSW Eco last month—21 students and faculty signed up, and more joined throughout the event! Sustainable America is committed to increasing food availability by decreasing food waste and increasing food production. Food waste programs like these are an important step toward a more sustainable future for America.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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