Universities are leading the attack on food waste

Food waste from college campuses results in 22 million pounds of waste. Universities and students are starting to change that.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File
People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey, November 16, 2013. Universities are leading the charge to reduce food waste.

You there! Drop that cafeteria tray!

Sometimes the simplest solutions to reducing food waste can be the best–and the cheapest too. Of course, from cutting coupons to lugging their weight in dirty laundry home for break, college students know how to save money. So it’s no surprise that they know how to save food too (and we’re not talking about stocking up on ramen).

Noticing how much food is wasted on college campuses every year (22 million pounds to be exact), students all over the country have started programs to reduce food waste through food recovery and composting efforts. Amongst the most effective programs are Campus Kitchens and Food Recovery Network, which have recovered a combined total of almost 5.5 million pounds of food from college campuses since 2001.

But college campuses don’t need to join one of these programs or even create a campus club to reduce food waste and save money.

The easiest solution colleges have found to reduce food waste and save money is to gotrayless. When students have a tray to fill with food, they’ll do just that. And more often than not, students realize their eyes are bigger than their stomach and end up tossing out the remaining food. 

An Amarak study in 2008 found when college dining halls go trayless for a day, food waste is decreased 25 to 30 percent per person. The study also found that going trayless lowers not only food waste removal costs, but also the cost of water, energy, and cleaning supplies used when cleaning the trays.

Another food waste study in 2013—this time by a group of Lean Six Sigma students at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology—shares a few other tips to reduce food waste on college campuses. The students found that simply educating students and staff about food waste, providing smaller serving utensils, pre-dishing more foods, and limiting the number of dishes the students uses can reduce each student’s food waste by 2.66 ounces per meal—totaling 145.4 pounds less food waste per lunch period.

This equals to an estimated 7,270 pounds saved per 10-week quarter. Considering food waste costs the Rose-Hulman dining hall around US$1.60 per pound in removal costs, Lean Six Sigma calculated that these easy (and cheap) changes could save the school about US$11,787 per quarter—US$35,361 per academic year. That’s more than the average cost of out-of-state university tuition last year.

That’s a pretty great dividend for just encouraging people to take what they like, and eat what they want, instead of wasting. It would be great to see more institutions—large and small, corporate and nonprofit—take a lesson from these smart colleges and ban the tray.

Some states are already adopting these basic best practices and applying them to institutions of all sizes. Massachusetts, for example, tackled excessive food waste in 2014and is reaping major benefits both economically and environmentally. One of their tips for businesses and institutions looking to reduce their own food waste: go trayless!

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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