With more than 30,000 meals served each day in MSU’s 10 dining halls, food waste can become a major problem.
Even though each customer might only waste a small portion of food a day, the weight adds up, with MSU producing approximately one million pounds of food waste per year, Residential and Hospitality Services Sustainability Officer Carla Iansiti said.
MSU has a number of programs designed to relieve this problem, some dealing with all aspects of dining halls.
Both elementary education sophomore Riley Marjamaa and Residential College in the Arts and Humanities sophomore Meghan Hollister agree food waste in the dining halls is a problem.
“When I was living at home and I didn’t finish a piece of pizza or something, it wasn’t a big deal, I could just throw it away, but I feel like when you’re in the caf, you don’t realize how much that adds up,” Hollister said. “I do think it’s something people should be more conscious of.”
Food waste at MSU can come from multiple places. It can be pre-consumer waste, like scraps from food preparation in the dining halls, or post-consumer waste, like the food that goes uneaten.
“I don’t actually eat in the caf very often because I don’t live on campus, but I do notice ... that sometimes I just don’t have enough time to eat everything that I got,” Marjamaa said. “Maybe people just don’t think it’s a big deal, and it’s just like, ‘Oh, it’s just a little bit of food.’”
One of MSU’s food waste prevention programs, Clean Plates at State, attempts to reduce food waste in the dining halls by weighing customers’ plates as they return their trays to the dining halls on specific count days, according to the Eat at State website.
The program is focused on post-consumer waste, which occurs when students don’t finish all of the food they take, Iansiti said. Since the Clean Plates at State program began in the spring of 2013, the program has used the data collected to determine just how much food should be produced. By using this data, the program can estimate how many portions to make based on history and experience.
The Clean Plates at State audits, found on the Eat at State website, found food waste has fluctuated from dining hall to dining hall through the years, but has ultimately seen a decrease in food waste overall.
Through the audits, typically done once per fall and spring semester in each dining hall, Clean Plates has found the average waste for each person per hall and average waste for each person per audit among other data. In the past six audits conducted, The Gallery at Snyder-Phillips Hall has the highest average waste out of the dining halls at 4.15 ounces per customer, and the dining hall in Wilson Hall has the lowest average waste at 2.56 ounces per customer. The university average through the same six audits is 3.65 ounces per customer.
According to the data offered from the audits, there isn’t a clear trend in the average weight of food waste across MSU. Looking at the audit results, the amount of food wasted largely fluctuates from semester to semester.
Dealing with the problem
Looking at the data behind how much food is wasted in the dining halls can also give clues as to how MSU can combat food waste before it happens. One way to do this is to have the dining hall chefs prepare food ahead of time instead of cooking mass quantities of it.
“The way that Culinary Services cooks is that they cook more to order, so they’re not preparing a lot of food in the back,” she said. “They’re prepping materials and getting it ready for service, so depending on the customer counter, they can cook it or they don’t need to cook it. So they’re not cooking food to waste it, so to speak.”
When certain foods come back uneaten repeatedly, that can be another clue as to how food waste can be combated.
“It really does matter if you do or don’t eat all your food,” director of Culinary Services Guy Procopio said. “And sometimes (customers) may not eat it because they don’t like it, and if we see a certain type of dish coming back, then we say, ‘Hey chefs, take a look here. Maybe this recipe isn’t quite right, or something happened during the prep of it.’”
The idea of prepping food instead of cooking food is just one way MSU attempts to minimize waste. MSU also utilizes a third-party called LeanPath, Iansiti said. LeanPath, which is on its second year pilot in Brody Neighborhood, helps chefs analyze data about how the food is being presented to consumers.
“For example, if you’re cutting a watermelon, maybe your yield was pretty poor on that watermelon, maybe the person didn’t know how to cut it properly,” Iansiti said. “We’re also looking at our scrap waste to make sure that we’re cutting our fruits and vegetables properly. So, a lot of people when they cut a strawberry, they cut the whole top off instead of de-coring it, things like that. And that could be a whole serving.”
It’s small things like this that can eliminate a significant portion of food waste. While Clean Plates at State aims to eliminate post-consumer waste, LeanPath looks at eliminating pre-consumer scraps.
“We’ve also learned that we were preparing a little too much soup over at Brody, thinking that more people ate soup, but as soon as the LeanPath came back – we were recording the food that was coming back – we were like, ‘OK, soup is really down in trending.’ So we saved some time and efforts in producing soup,” she said. “It’s a third party that we’re using, and we’re not real good with it yet, we only have it in a couple halls to see how it can help our staff and students see that food waste is definitely serious.”
Where does the food go?
While there are programs at MSU in place to help prevent food waste, they don’t eliminate the problem completely. When the food isn’t being eaten by the customers in the dining halls, the scraps are sent on to student organic farming or the university’s anaerobic digester, Iansiti said.
The anaerobic digester, located at MSU’s dairy farms, uses food waste and other organic materials like manure and biosolids and converts it into biogas and natural gas, which can then be used to make electricity, heat and steam. The target is to continually produce 380 kilowatts of electricity every hour said assistant professor in biosystems and agricultural engineering Dana Kirk, who oversees the digester’s operations.
“We are shifting, like, 800,000 pounds (of food waste) over to the anaerobic digester,” Iansiti said. “Right now I understand that our digester is one of the highest energy outputting digesters we have because we are putting food waste in it, so he’s producing enough over there to run the equivalent of Holmes Hall.”
The process essentially takes the mixture of organic materials and converts it into renewable energy by introducing microorganisms into the sealed, heated digester. According to a motion graphic video created by MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, the organic material mixture is first heated to remove any pathogens and is then pumped into the digester. The microorganisms inside the tank break down the mixture and produce biogas, composed of mostly methane, which is used to create the electricity MSU uses.
“The biogas that we produce from it is used to make electricity, and that electricity is used exclusively on campus, so it’s all used in campus buildings,” Kirk said. “I think we have 10 on our list, so 10 different facilities on campus get their power from the digester. ... We’re offsetting electricity that we would normally buy from Consumers Energy.”
MSU is not the only university to utilize an anaerobic digester, but it is unique in that it is completely owned and operated by the university, Kirk said.
“More universities collect food waste and do composting of that, so we’re a little unique in that we actually digest it and then we compost it,” Kirk said. “We get the energy off it and then we end up with really high-quality fertilizers.”
The digester was first implemented based on a combination of environmental concerns, Kirk said, but ultimately resulted from many departments and divisions of the university all realizing there needed to be a change with how the university handled organic waste.
Some of the food waste that doesn’t go to the digester heads to the Student Organic Farm, where the waste is composted and used in crop production both at the Student Organic Farm and at the Bailey GREENhouse and Urban Farm, according to the Eat at State website. More than 100,000 pounds of pre-consumer food waste is sent to the Student Organic Farm.
“The thing that composting allows us to do is to keep food scraps from going in the landfill and to recycle them where they can do a lot of good,” professor in the Department of Horiculture John Biernbaum said. “There’s been quite a big movement in composting around the country, but, you know, it’s a little less in the Midwest here ... The Midwest has the opportunity to do more with composting and we really need to work on that more.”
What students can do
Even though there are programs in place at MSU to reduce food waste, there are still ways students can reduce waste in the dining halls. Even simple things like asking for a sample or taking smaller portions can significantly reduce the amount of waste that goes through the dining halls.
“If I’m eating with friends, I’ll just offer something that I’m not going to eat or finish, and ask , ‘Do you want any of this?’ and just try to get someone to eat it,” Marjamaa said.
Going trayless is another option to reduce waste.
According to the Eat at State website, trayless dining helps reduce food waste as well as support water and energy conservation. Some dining halls, like Heritage Commons at Landon Hall, The Edge at Akers Hall and The Vista at Shaw Hall, are designed to be trayless dining halls.
“Just try to get smaller portions,” Hollister said. “I know sometimes with lunch or dinner, you can’t really control just how much they give you, but if I can, I try to get as little as possible and always go back for more.”