Why care about food waste?
“If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the U.S. & China.” — Roff Smith, National Geographic
My mom always told me to clear my plate, and more so out of habit than environmental consciousness, I would do my best to not leave anything on my plate. When I first heard this statistic two years ago from the National Geographic article, I was quick to dismiss the significance of it. It had been a long day, and I just did not have the energy to wrap my head around this reality.
But it is becoming more evident that this is an issue that cannot be ignored. After watching documentaries like Just Eat It and personally observing food being thrown out by our local Wegmans, I saw the reality play out in front of my eyes.
Just a couple weeks ago, I attended a conference where Paul Hawken, the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, presented the empirical evidence that showed that “reduced food waste” is the number three solution to reverse (yes, reverse!) climate change. This only motivated more to look deeper into the food waste issue here at Cornell.
Sure, reducing food waste sounds great, but how does this apply to our everyday lives? Does that little bit of food I leave on my plate actually matter?
The truth is, it does. And I am here to present you my case and to perhaps motivate you to be more mindful of your own food waste by informing you of Cornell Dining’s initiatives to curb it.
Food waste statistics from Cornell Dining
Since 2014, Cornell Dining’s Student Sustainability Coordinators have been conducting personal food waste studies in dining halls on both North and West Campus. You may have noticed them as you were headed to the dish racks after your dinner at one of the dining halls. The SSCs usually approach students to ask questions regarding the food left or not left on their plate. Some of these questions include whether or not this is the normal amount of food you leave on your plate and, if not, what factors contributed to the abnormal amount of food left on your plate. They also ask if students can recall encountering previous food waste studies. They then measure the amount of food left on your plate, excluding inedible fruit rinds, bones and beverages, and compile data to present to the Cornell Dining Senior Staff at the end of the year.
By conducting these studies, SSCs have been able to work with Cornell Dining to pre-portion protein dishes, such as the General Tso’s chicken served at RPCC for Monday dinners.
During the 2016-2017 school years, the SSCs conducted food waste studies on North Campus, at Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery and North Star. Their aim was to analyze food waste patterns among freshmen. Their results showed that freshmen wasted an average of 3.70 ounces per plate in Fall 2016, and freshmen wasted an average of 3.04 ounces per student in Spring 2017. The school year’s average was 3.37 ounces per student.
The study’s most recent data so far from this fall semester found that students from both North and West Campuses wasted an average of 3.00 ounces per student, more or less the same amount as last semester. Out of the students who responded that they wasted an abnormal amount of food, 53.4 percent of them reasoned “taste” as the main issue, 23.9 percent as food quality, 11.4 percent took too much and 9.1 percent were in a hurry.
Three ounces of food waste per person may not sound very significant, but this translates into nearly a full plate of food that is wasted. Multiply that by three meals per day, and that totals around nine ounces of food wasted every day for every student, totaling 5.25 pounds of food per week. Considering that thousands of students eat on-campus, the problem soon adds up to look very, very serious.
So what is Cornell Dining doing?
As mentioned in my previous article, Cornell Dining works hard to maximize the use of food, even food scraps. The vegetable broth from Trillium’s ramen made from inedible stems and shoots of vegetables and banana bread in dining halls and newly offered acai bowls in Cafe Jennie are made using slightly bruised or overripe fruits.
And in case you didn’t know, Cornell has its own compost facility operated by Cornell Farm Services. According to its website, anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 tons of organic waste are turned into “high-quality compost” every year. Eight hundred tons — 11 percent to 16 percent of this organic waste — comes from kitchen waste.
When I visited the Cornell compost facility last month, the sheer size and efficient management of the site blew me away. I used to be part of the crew who criticized Cornell Dining for not being “sustainable,” but the more I investigate what is happening behind the scenes, the more evident it is that Cornell Dining does care about minimizing waste. Dining halls even have climate-controlled rooms dedicated to preserving kitchen compost until it is picked up by Farm Services.
Can Cornell Dining improve?
The short answer is, yes, it could. But not by itself. The somewhat outdated signage and lack of uniformity in waste bins leave even the most eco-minded ones to feel overwhelmed and dump everything in the trash bin. I too am guilty of that.
Cornell Dining has tried various interventions such as changing bin layout, updating signage, having compost monitors and planting a garden in front of Trillium, yet the high turnover of students and the constant changes in products have made it difficult to continue sustainable initiatives. But the main barrier holding back the operation from being even more sustainable is its consumers. Sure, we Cornellians all empathize with each other’s stressful, busy lives. I often see students (including myself) frantically staring down at study guides while chowing down whatever food is in front of them. Tasting our food alone is a task, so how could we be expected to mind our food waste? Next thing we know, we toss whatever food we could not finish in time or did not calculate quite correctly, and down the bin goes more methane and carbon dioxide to be released into our air.
The true way to tackle this issue lies with collaboration among every student. Even the slightest bit of contamination in compost and in recycling creates challenges along the entire waste management chain, from the janitor to Cornell Farm Services.
The simultaneously sad and hopeful realization I have come to is this: Reducing food waste is up to the daily (or hourly) actions of every individual. To ask for just half of a dish, to ask to sample the food first or to just ask yourself to finish that last bit of food on your plate is all that it takes. There are so many issues in this world that seem too difficult to solve, but reducing food waste has such a blatant solution. The more we individually and collectively recognize the weight of this matter, the less weight of food wasted and the less weight of climate change burden on our planet.