In early September, the UN reported that 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted globally each year, creating economic losses upwards of $750 billion and “significant damage to the environment.”
Unfortunately, our dining service, Bon Appétit, is not exempt from this statistic.
Appeasing the appetites of some two-thousand students in a sustainable way is a complex task, and even in a microcosm as small as a liberal-arts college in Minnesota, food waste often goes unnoticed.
Officially, Bon Appetit employs multiple strategies to reduce waste. Their efforts are two fold, aimed primarily at eliminating excess before and after meals through batch cooking and reusing food items.
Katie McKenna, Bon Appétit’s dining service manager, explained that batch cooking “means we try to prepare small quantities throughout the meal period so that we have as little as possible left over at the end of the meal period.”
This is easier said than done. J.M. Hanley ’16, a previous student employee in the LDC, reported that it’s true to an extent that Bon Appetit cooks food as needed, but “the problem is that this is about as much guidance as, from what I could tell, the chefs receive. Some chefs really roll with the punches, while other will cook, like five trays of something if they notice that the first is running low.”
Some dishes are very unpopular, and, Hanley continued, “as a general rule, there were about three trays of food leftover for each station at the end of an LDC shift, excluding Chinese, pizza, and salad bar.”
McKenna agreed that batch cooking is not a perfected science, and that there are “certain dishes [it] works perfect for and there are dishes like lasagna. You can’t really make that as you need it.”
But the difficulty with this system goes beyond the type of food prepared. It’s that Bon Appetite employees want to provide us with a pleasurable dining experience, and therefore, McKenna said, “We try to make enough so that if you walk in at the end of the meal period you still have the same variety as someone walking in at the beginning.”
Another past student employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, corroborated McKenna’s statement, reporting, “I was always urged to bring out a new dish of food, even if there were one or two servings remaining in the one I was dishing out and we were about to close.”
Post-meal, Bon Appetite strives to reuse food as much as possible, although this isn’t always an option. The viability of a dish mostly depends on its kind and quality at the end of the meal period. If the dish has been served by trained employees, handled safely and kept at the right temperature, it can often be repurposed into another item. Thus, turkey breast served one day becomes turkey sandwiches the next, and Bon Appetite tries to write their menus, according to McKenna, “in such a way the we can utilize a product like that.”
As for how this actually plays out, Hanley said, “They’ll reuse a lot of what they have…I have no idea if they’ll reuse all of it though. And for stuff like already-scrambled eggs, wild thymes concoctions, etc., I’d imagine you can’t really do much and probably have to toss it.”
Shira Kaufman ’16, who is striving to implement a system on campus with Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity which helps transport food to pantries and banks, said, “a lot of the stuff leftover is prepared food, like rice, and things they make in bulk, since until the end of the period, they need to always continuously have food out…they don’t reuse some of it, although they actually reuse a fair amount of things–meat, a lot of the time.”
Leftover pastries at Sayles, however, are all composted–if you hang around until closing time at 1 AM, you may be able to see green bags stuffed with croissants and cookies leaving the building–and Bon Appetite employees are not allowed to give the excess to students.
Of course, another part of the equation is post-consumer waste. Part of the problem is students, who, as Hanley commented, “are pretty wasteful, because they’ll get something, realize it’s nasty after a small bite, and toss it all.”
To combat this, Bon Appetite has gone tray-less in the LDC and encouraged students to go tray-less in Burton (although the infrastructure of the older building makes this more difficult). They encourage servers to give appropriate portions, but if a student asks for more, they’re obliged to accommodate the request. Tasting spoons are also supposed to be available at every station for trying dishes before taking a full serving, though this rarely seems to occur.
So how much food is actually wasted? It’s difficult to quantify, and there aren’t actually consistent numbers for pre- and post-consumer waste. Last year, Kaufman and a few other students attempted to measure the usable leftovers after meals, but she reported, “it was kind of difficult to get volunteers, especially for lunch and breakfast periods.”
Originally, Kaufman hoped to partner with The Food Recovery Network, a program that organizes students on college campuses to package food and transport it to shelters and food banks. However, Kaufman said, this occurs at “mostly big schools in cities where they can quickly get the food to points where it can be distributed.”
Implementing a system like this in a suburban area such as Northfield is much more complex. Many food banks, accustomed to receiving canned foods, aren’t equipped to use prepared dishes. There are also very specific health regulations in the packaging and labeling of food. Essentially, Kaufman said, there would be “lots of really tricky logistics that would rely heavily on students to be there right after meals.” She wants students to be involved, but not overwhelmed.
Kaufman has thus recently re-focused her efforts on an organization called Feeding America, which provides outside volunteers to come to campus, package the food and transport it to a middle man distributor in Rochester–“to do all the work, pretty much,” she said.
Although the idea is still tentative, it’s a very real possibility–and if it works out, Kaufman believes more effort can be put into reducing waste post-consumer, because, she stressed, if food is being recovered, “the food that leaves our trays is food that could viably go to someone else.”
She is currently planning a food waste awareness week in January, during which waste will be weighed and measured. The week might even including a competition with St. Olaf as motivation for students to be aware.
And yet, college as an institution wasn’t created to be waste efficient, and perhaps the waste students accumulate is in part due to the strangeness of the environment–of living in a dorm, of eating in a dining hall–as well as expectations that an abundance of tasty, well-prepared food will always be on hand. Even so, an anonymous student said, “most LDC food is gross, and part of that comes from cooking pulled pork in a cauldron the size of a bathtub with a spatula the size of an oar.”
Given this, Bon Appetite might consider other, less direct approaches to reducing waste. Meal plans are expensive because students pay for the options, but some students don’t want to eat cereal, tofu and sweet-potato fries in the same meal. In fact, many complain that they’d rather cook their own food. Allowing more students to be off-board, or offering more meal plan options, would probably save food because students would be more aware of the costs and therefore more aware of the waste.
Another option is to change the dining hall completely and create an à la carte, pay-as-you-go system, a tactic which Hanley supported, since he believes with the buffet system, “you encourage a mindset of ‘I’ve already paid! I’m gonna squeeze my money out of these people by taking a whole serving of something I only want to eat two bites of, even if that means throwing the rest out!’ ”
It is easy to blame Bon Appetite for the food waste on campus, but as consumers of the food itself, students necessarily play a part as well. Whatever the best course of action, there are multiple incentives to reduce waste, economically and environmentally, and it would behoove students to consider them. Regardless of Bon Appetite’s actions, Kaufman emphasized, students need to “monitor, think about and be more conscientious” of their wastefulness.