Claire Li/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

After finishing their meals, students dispose of excess food at the dish drop in Toni Morrison Dining Hall.

February 22, 2023

Cornell Dining and Students Aim to Mitigate Food Waste on Campus, Recovering Leftover Food and Working With Local Community

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Cornell eateries on campus aim to minimize food waste as part of the University’s larger sustainability initiatives. Student employees, Cornell Dining and student organizations exercise multifaceted efforts to reduce the waste of food in dining halls and redistribute food to the local community. 

“We have multiple programs in place to minimize throwing away ‘ready-to-eat’ food, both because we don’t want to waste food and because we don’t want to waste funds, which comes down to students’ funds,” said Karen Brown, senior director of campus life marketing and communications. 

Prepared food and bakery items at retail eateries get consolidated each Friday and redistributed to campus eateries open over the weekend. This allows for students to purchase these leftover items on the weekends, preventing them from being disposed of. 

The University dining services also donates perishable food to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier a few times throughout the semester from residential dining rooms and from the catering kitchen

More frequently, Cornell donates leftover food to the Food Recovery Network

“Multiple days per week, the Food Recovery Network picks up prepared food that wasn’t set out on the line at our dining rooms or at catered events,” Brown said. 

FRN is a nationwide non-profit with university chapters across the country, including at Cornell, that donate extra leftover food from dining halls to local food pantries. Surplus meals are currently donated to the Friendship Donations Network, which then redistributes food to different pantries across Tompkins County. 

The non-profit works with Becker House, Cook House, Bethe House and Morrison Dining five times per week. Two to five volunteers go to the dining halls before closing and package the leftover food, and a driver then delivers the food to the FRN in Downtown Ithaca. FRN has also worked with local farms to collect and donate produce that will not be sold at the end of the season. 

Cornell Hunger Relief serves as a student program that aims to combat food insecurity within Tompkins County. One of their biggest events, the Big Red Food Drive, occurs in May and allows students to use their remaining Big Red Bucks to purchase non-perishable food items. These items are then donated to the Friendship Donations Network. 

“CHR donates all collected food items to Friendship Donations Network, a local hunger relief program that redistributes the donations to community members in need,” said Maria DiGiovanni ’23, Cornell Hunger Relief co-president. “Last year, we had our biggest drive yet — over 4,500 pounds of food — and we look forward to keeping that momentum going this May.”

CHR is currently looking forward to their annual Future Food Summit in March, an open workshop which allows students to discuss and exchange information regarding our impact on food systems both on campus and in the greater community. 

In the back of the dining halls, compost bins collect leftover food that cannot be saved. These bins are then combined with other compost materials and composted at Farm Services. The resulting compost mix is used by Cornell agricultural projects, used on campus for landscaping, donated to local organizations or publicly sold. 

“Since we’re not permitted under the Health Department regulations to donate partial trays of prepared food that have already been set out for service, we  compost the remnants, along with materials like unusable parts of vegetables trimmed in preparing meals, bones from cutting meat that’s to be cooked, lots and lots of coffee grounds, paper towels and other items that also end up in home compost bins,” Brown said. 

On-campus dining employees such as Rina Hisajima ’24, a student manager at Alice Cook House, wishes more compost bins were available to students for their leftover food to be composted. However, dining employees have taken their own efforts to decrease food waste on campus.

“I have personally tried my best to mitigate food waste by being conscious of dropped food, but it was difficult,” Hisajima said. “Luckily, some of the student employees followed my example.” 

The dining halls also monitor food waste with waste logs, allowing them to learn and adapt every week. 

“Our managers do their best to order and prepare the right amount of food in their units. We’ve generally been seeing a decline in the numbers, with individual units curbing their waste,” Brown said. “We are continuing to work toward a campus where as much food as possible is eaten, rather than discarded because it can no longer be served.” 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cornell Dining partnered with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier and the Greater Ithaca Activities Center to create a food pantry resource available to the community. The food pantry served thousands of meals to the public, reallocating food from the closed eateries to the hands of Ithaca residents. 

More recently, however, the Cornell Food Pantry has focused on Cornell students, staff, faculty and their dependents. This serves as one of Cornell’s longstanding food security initiatives. 

“Minimizing food waste on campus is absolutely important. Food waste means wasted resources and energy, and we need to do everything we can to fight climate change,” Hisajima said. 

Correction, Feb. 25, 10:48 p.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled Maria DiGiovanni’s ’23 name. The Sun regrets this error, and the article has been corrected.