When Libe Cafe closes, employees fill trash bags with sushi, salads and pastries. This food — which had been for sale just hours before — will all be thrown out.
Despite being a major stop on campus for sleep-deprived and hungry students, Cornell cafes and coffee shops do not follow recently-introduced sustainability initiatives that regulate the handling of food waste at most dining halls and lunch spots. Trillium, the Ivy Room, Martha’s Cafe and other lunch eateries on campus have compost bins for patrons to use.
Cornell’s current compost facility, which was constructed in 1992 and is located one mile off campus, turns 4,000 tons of organic waste into compost each year. Cornell Dining alone provides 850 tons of this food waste, while the rest comes from animal bedding, manure and plant debris.
Most of Cornell Dining’s compost is generated during the cooking and preparation process, according to Karen Brown, director of Campus Life Marketing and Communications. This includes unusable parts of vegetables, bones from meat products, coffee grounds and paper towels. All kitchen facilities must partake in this process called “pre-consumer” composting.
But not included in those 850 tons are the pastries, sushi and expiring grab-and-go items from cafes across campus, such as Amit Bhatia Libe Cafe and Carol’s Cafe, according to Joshua Gathany, a manager for Libe Cafe. Instead of being donated or composted, leftover items such as salads, sandwiches, cookies and cupcakes are often thrown away daily.
Libe Cafe attempts to limit the amount of food waste they create by saving the baked goods that will stay fresh to the next day.
“We save cookies for the next day, things without frosting,” Gathany told The Sun. “Bagels get thrown away, but that’s a very small amount. Things with frosting such as cinnamon rolls [also get thrown away], but we almost always sell out of those. Croissants get thrown away.”
Due to a lack of space, and the fact that Libe Cafe does not prepare food items on the premises, there is no compost receptacle, according to Gathany. Libe Cafe also does not currently partner with any organizations to donate their leftover items.
While this food is thrown out, there are many Cornell students that struggle with food insecurity. According to a Cornell PULSE survey in 2017, 28 percent of respondents said that they had occasionally or often skipped meals in order to save money. This is up six percent from just two years prior.
Beyond Cornell, 12.5 percent of residents and 20 percent of children in Tompkins County and surrounding areas are food insecure, according to Feeding America.
Several student associations have formed to address this issue. The Cornell Food Recovery Network sets out to eliminate dining hall waste by donating leftover food to local food pantries. Currently, FRN is partnered with Cook House, Becker House, Okenshields and RPCC dining halls.
However, some students are turning towards more unconventional means. A GroupMe group, in which members update each other on free food events happening on campus or if there is leftover food after club meetings, has over 3,400 members.
Current group owner Moriah Adeghe ’21 believes it’s an important resource for those who may be food insecure on campus.
“I think that the Free Food GroupMe does a lot of good as far as trying to help people find food when they might be out of meal swipes or low on BRBs,” Adeghe told The Sun in a GroupMe message. “It can’t really be used in place of a meal plan for sure, but it can definitely help on those nights where you aren’t sure where, or if you can even buy food.”
Currently, extra food from Cornell cafes are not deliberately marketed to the group chat.
For those working in the campus cafes, any food that is set to be thrown out at the end of the night is up for grabs by the employees. Samantha Annunziato ’20, who works at Carol’s Cafe in the Tatkon Center, usually takes bagels and other pastries home for her roommates.
“Some days [the amount of food waste] is fine. Like today, it’s not that much,” Annunziato said, and gestured toward the leftover bakery tray still full with cookies, danishes, cupcakes and other goods. “Other days, it’s a lot more.”
Despite the system’s flaws, Cornell Dining is making an effort to monitor the amount of food left over through the use of waste logs required in every cafe. Managers read these reports weekly and adjust their food orders accordingly, Brown told The Sun.
Brown seemed optimistic about the impact of the waste logs. “We’ve generally been seeing a decline in the numbers [of food leftover], with individual units curbing their waste,” she said.
Moreover, grab-and-go items such as salads and sandwiches are consolidated each Friday from the eateries open only on weekdays, and transferred to facilities that are open through the weekend.
According to Gathany, Libe Cafe is efficient at minimizing their food waste.
“We pay attention to our ordering practices, we record how much we throw away, we forecast how much to order based on sales,” Gathany said.
However, Cornell Dining remains open to new policies or initiatives.
“For the future, we’re continuing to work toward a campus where as much food as possible is eaten, rather than discarded because it can no longer be served,” Brown said. “I’m sure there will be new programs in the future that we haven’t even considered yet.”