Twice a year, Harvard University Dining Services employees carefully isolate all of the uneaten food from every tray returned to each of Harvard’s 14 dining halls in a week-long food audit. They weigh the uneaten food after all non-edible waste, including bones and fruit peels, is removed. The food is then composted.
This process is repeated during lunch hours every day for a week so that HUDS estimates how much food the typical Harvard undergraduate wastes while eating in a dining hall.
Based on the spring 2015 food waste audit data, the average student wastes 1.38 ounces of food per meal, according to HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin. Extrapolating from this data, the best estimates suggest that Harvard undergraduates in total leave about 223,647 pounds of uneaten food on trays each year, she added.
The consequences of food waste are not limited to the Harvard’s dining halls. Organizations, including Food For Free, a non-profit organization based in Cambridge dedicated to reducing food waste and providing meals to emergency food programs, look to connect people with an excess of food with others in need of it.
“There is a tremendous amount of food waste at the retail or university or bulk level,” said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free. “That’s where we’re able to come in and try to solve the problem.”
Organizations across the campus and area, from Food For Free to HUDS, have been working to reduce the prevalence of food waste, yet it still remains a pressing issue, they say. The problem is compounded every time a student places leftover food on a motorized tray return system, moving waste out of sight and out of mind.
THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLES
Food waste on campus tends to come in two primary forms: food left over in the serving area and food left on student trays.
It used to be be the case that all leftover food had to be composted at the end of each meal. However, Chapter 94 of Massachusetts General Law has changed in recent years and now protects organizations that donate food to non-profit organizations from civil liability, provided it meets certain standards.
These revisions make it possible for Harvard to donate leftover food from their serveries. As a result, HUDS began donating leftover food from the serving area to Food For Free starting more than a year ago, according to Martin.
“As long as we kept it according to food code regulations, and could reasonably assure safety, then we may donate it if it’s to a good cause,” Martin said.
Food For Free uses the food it receives from HUDS in a variety of ways, Purpura said. Some of it goes straight to shelters and meal programs. Some is donated to organizations like Bread of Life in Malden, Mass., which uses the food to make meals for homeless people, who often do not have access to healthy food options.
Harvard’s donations to Food For Free amounted to about 45,000 meals that otherwise would have been wasted last school year, according to statistics on the HUDS website.
“We’ve been collecting food from over 40 food donors, and we’ve been doing it for over 30 years,” Purpura said. “Harvard has actually been the absolute strongest in being a true partner versus having us just pick up food.”
APPLES AND ORANGES
Part of the challenge for HUDS lies in both providing enough food for everyone and minimizing the amount of wasted food, goals that are often conflicting.
HUDS uses a predictive technology called FoodPro to determine how much of a given meal item to produce. Chefs in each dining hall record how much of each item they produce and how much is left over at the end of the meal in the database. Based on analysis of that data, HUDS tries to cook only as much as they estimate will be consumed, according to Martin.
“For every single item we serve, we would note how much of the item we prepared, how much we served, and therefore how much was left,” Martin said. “It’s a way to control preparation as closely as possible.”
However, this predictive technology needs to be balanced with ensuring that an adequate menu offering is still available for all students regardless of the time they walk into the dining hall. “Our goal is that, at the end of the meal, when you walk in, you should still be able to pick from what was on the menu for that day,” Martin said.
However, exact predictions on how much will be consumed during a given meal are impossible. “Invariably, there will be things left over,” Martin said.
A more difficult problem arises with food waste left on student trays after meals, which cannot be donated.
Adams House has one possible solution for reducing food waste. The House is piloting a “selective tray service,” which began at dinner on Oct. 8. Trays are now kept in the back of the serving area instead of the front.
Thomas C. O’Brien, unit manager for Adams dining hall, told Adams House residents in an email last month that making trays less easily accessible “reduces food waste as trays tend to make it possible for diners to take more food than they are able to eat.”
The hope is that students think more carefully about their food selections and come back to the servery if they need more, rather than pile a lot of food that might go to waste onto their trays, according to the email. The experiment is still in its trial phase, and data about its impact on food waste is not yet available, according to Martin.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Extrapolating from the statistics provided by HUDS, by the time Harvard undergraduates leave school as seniors, they each will have wasted more than 100 pounds of food at the tray return.
Annenberg sees higher per person food waste than the upperclassman dining halls, according to Martin. Yet for students at Harvard, food waste is often not a particularly pressing issue.
“It’s definitely not the biggest issue to me personally,” Anna M. Raheem ’19 said. “But if we have food waste it’s important … to use it in a way that’s productive.”
Others felt that the situation in Cambridge brings the issue of food waste to the forefront of their minds. “I think about [food waste] a lot especially now that we’re in Cambridge, and I see a lot of homeless and hungry people,” Monica E. Reichard ’19 said.
Students interviewed said they believe students would be less likely to waste their food if the dining halls had signs as reminders to avoid food waste or displayed statistics about food waste.
The Office for Sustainability is working to address this side of the food waste issue through its undergraduate Resource Efficiency Program.
“We’re trying to get students to be more aware of food waste,” said Kelsey Grab, who coordinates the program.
One of the REP’s projects to reduce food waste is the Clean Plate Club event, organized by student representatives of the program. During the event, representatives hand out stickers to students as they enter the dining hall, reminding them to be conscious of food waste and aware of its consequences. These awareness-raising programs have helped to reduce the amount of food wasted in dining halls, according to Grab.
“Food waste is an issue all over the world,” Grab said. “It’s an issue that everyone’s trying to tackle.”
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