UM aims to reduce food waste

The biodigester stands outside the Hecht-Stanford Dining Hall, ready to turn food scraps into a reusable grey water. Photo credit: Cameron Tavakoly

The University of Miami’s residential dining halls process about 1,150 p­ounds of food waste every day— that’s a pile of garbage about as heavy as a cow.

But what can students do to reduce the amount of food that ends up in a landfill? Stefanie Getz, the student government’s ECO Agency liaison, said it’s all about portion control.

“If you dine in a buffet style place like the dining hall, the best way to reduce food waste is to take little bits at a time,” Getz said. “There’s no harm in getting up multiple times to refill your plate, but there is harm in taking more than you can eat and having it end up as waste.”

Meagan Clements, director of marketing and guest experience for Chartwells—the company responsible for all on-campus dining—echoed this statement.

“One phrase that we really like to use in dining is ‘Take all you can eat, but eat all that you take,’” Clements said.

Aside from the vast resources required to produce food that students may or may not actually consume, Getz described the environmental implications that food waste can have once it’s thrown away.

“When organic matter breaks down in a landfill, it cannot use oxygen, making the process anaerobic,” Getz said. “Anaerobic processes release methane instead of carbon dioxide, which is over 80 times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

While students are responsible for what happens to food once it’s on their plate, UM Dining is striving to reduce the amount of waste that arises from the food-production process.

For example, when deciding how much food to order and prepare on a certain day, dining hall chefs analyze detailed guest-traffic records from prior years. By looking at past demands for certain foods, the UM Dining staff can prepare the correct amount of food, rather than ending up with too much or too little.

Another way in which UM Dining addresses the food waste issue is through a special piece of equipment—the biodigester. This machine, used in the Hecht-Stanford Dining Hall, converts pre-consumer food scraps into grey water. This water can be used in irrigation, plumbing, and cleaning, thus diverting waste away from landfills.

“The goal was to take a lot of the waste from our production,” Clements said. “So, if we’re chopping carrots, the stems of the carrots. Potato peels, things like that. We save that and put that into the biodigester.”

In order to further reduce food waste, UM Dining is considering a new model of the biodigester that will be able to process all of the dining hall’s pre-consumer food scraps, rather than only a portion of them.

In recent years, some of the most significant strides against food waste have resulted from collaborations between UM Dining and the ECO Agency.

In addition to composting used coffee grounds, both organizations work together to donate food that’s produced but not served in the dining halls. Rather than ending up in the garbage, the excess food gets donated to the Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit organization that coordinates with the Miami Rescue Mission. UM Dining has donated over 100,000 pounds of food, which has supplied about 68,000 meals to the hungry.

Various interactive events also serve to educate students about food waste on campus. During each Spring semester, Stop Food Waste week aims to increase awareness of the problem and encourage better dining practices. ECO Agency’s “Weigh the Waste” events encourage students to place their food waste into trash cans that rest on scales so that students can measure the amount of food they are throwing out.

“It is really a wakeup call to put your food directly into the trash can because it is easy to forget that that’s where it all ends up when you have unlimited access to food in the dining hall,” Getz said.

Teddy L’Houtellier, the University’s Sustainability Manager, said his office has also been exploring the possibility of composting food waste. However, there is no commercial composting facility in the Coral Gables area, which makes these plans difficult to carry out. So far, UM has only been able to set up compost piles in the Gifford Arboretum and in the School of Architecture’s garden, although L’Houtellier said composting is a means of changing the university’s food waste culture.

“The idea is to get rid of this linear mentality, that [waste] is going to go away somehow, we don’t know where, and move to a circular mentality, which is everything you throw away is going to come back at you,” L’Houtellier said. “It’s like your mom is telling you to clean your room and you put everything under the carpet. That’s kind of how we deal with waste.”

Although the amount of guest-produced food waste has stayed relatively constant in recent years, both Clements and Getz said they’re optimistic about the future of food waste on campus. Positive change will arise once people become more aware of the problem, they said.

“Taking responsibility and realizing that just your actions can make really make a big difference is the most important thing,” Clements said.

“In my ideal world, I hope that every student realizes that what they eat, how much they eat, and how much they throw away all have a significant environmental impact,” Getz said.