Try to imagine a typical university dining hall. If you see stacks of trays loaded with unconsumed food, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, dining services generates large quantities of food waste, all of which required a lot of time, money, water and energy during production. Unfortunately, students do not consume all of this food and many of these resources end up in landfills.
Many of us know that food production itself has vast environmental impacts, starting with production, through transportation and processing until it reaches your table. What you may not know is that the impacts continue through the life of the food material as it is disposed of.
Fortunately, campuses across the nation are working to change this wasteful status quo. Our own U of I is in fact a leader in sustainable dining. One of the core values of the initiative is to promote sustainability by investing in locally produced food and about 25% of the University’s food budget is spent purchasing these goods. Dining Services purchases 95% of the produce grown at the Student Sustainable Farm and 90% of the bread is baked in Illinois. Locally-produced food not only provides students with fresh options but also massively reduces the carbon footprint due to transportation of food in addition to helping the local economy thrive.
Local food is futile, however, if it ends up wasted in a landfill, so the University has launched quite a few initiatives to improve efficiency in this respect. The most effective measure thus far is Dining Services’ decision to go trayless. Trays encourage students to take more than they can eat and in all-you-can-eat locations, this leads to huge amounts of food waste as students are highly likely to put a small dessert or cookie on their tray in addition to the food already present. This transition helped decrease food waste by 15 ounces per student per meal. This rate is substantial considering the thousands of students that eat multiple meals each day.
U of I Dining is also a leader in sustainable technology usage, particularly with the utilization of a food waste tracking program called Lean Path. This program weighs food waste and aggregates information about the items. It then provides useful statistics such as the total cost of the food being thrown out and the cost of energy and water that was used in production. This helps keep a track of the kind of food being wasted the most over two week periods. Technology such as this gives large scale dining operations an idea of the impact their waste generation is having.
Another program that originated at UIUC was the Zero Percent mobile application, which helps the University easily get in touch with local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Excess food is not only diverted from landfills but is useful to those who need it the most.
It is especially important to encourage the University to not only keep up these efforts but to steadily improve them. Additionally, it is crucial for colleges across the nation to follow suit. These efforts go a long way in mitigating some of the environmental problems of today.
(Image: Lean Path Tracker used at Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Hall)