May 9, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Dear Cornell: You’re Breaking the Law and Students Are Going Hungry

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Some are surely immune to it by now, but most food service workers can remember the first time they had to chuck pounds upon pounds of perfectly edible food into the waste bin while on the job. The same holds true for students and full-time workers at Cornell Dining. Its a sort of collective trauma that countless workers share.

While such superfluous and unthinking waste is tragically commonplace across private food providers across the country, in recent years we have seen legal interventions come into effect that should result in dramatic reductions in food waste. The NYS Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2022, requires that excess edible food be donated and food scraps be recycled by all businesses and institutions, like Cornell, that generate an average of two tons of wasted food per week. 

Another law signed in 2023, The Food Donation Improvement Act, amends The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and makes it legal for surplus food to be donated directly to individuals. According to Amanda Little in The Washington Post, “The new rules ease the burden of liability so that qualified private donors that already have safety checks in place aren’t held legally responsible for food quality or spoilage. The Food Donation Improvement Act removes a provision requiring private-sector donations be funneled through food-relief organizations.”

These new laws reflect the common sense principle that fully prepared and edible food should

not go to waste. When we sit down for a meal, we often don’t think about all the energy, labor,

farm work, and shipping that goes into the food in front of us. The True Cost of Food accounts for the production cost of food as well as all the hidden natural, human and social

costs of producing it. By the time food is served at a dining hall or cafe, it is actually the sum of every step of the food system which brought it from farm to fork, including all the hidden

economic, environmental and social costs required for its production. When Cornell Dining throws away food it means that not only is the food wasted, but the labor, fuel and time going into producing it is also wasted.

It’s worth acknowledging the decades-long working relationship between local food recovery

non-profit Friendship Donations Network and Cornell, including sporadic pickups of surplus

product and, in recent years, weekly pickups by student volunteers at a few select dining halls.

However, all parties can agree that the amount of food currently recovered is merely the tip of

the iceberg, and much more can be done.

With Cornell Dining’s proclaimed commitment to sustainability and these new laws in effect,

the status quo of dumping food that never had to become “waste” in the first place simply

cannot stand. Cornell Dining proudly declares itself an ‘enterprise service’ within the larger Cornell bureaucracy, meaning that it runs for a profit that feeds into running the University at large. In both dining and housing, Cornell appears to have found a boon. All first-years and sophomores are now required to live in University owned housing, which in turn triggers a universal meal plan requirement, under which all first years and West Campus residents are forced into the priciest ‘unlimited’ plan, even if they go less frequently. The reality is that Cornell holds its student-customer base completely captive with the costs of tuition, housing and dining. Because the majority of the student population pays full-price tuition, these ever-rising and newly mandatory fees amount to a major payday for the University.

So students can eat with reckless abandon, right? One would assume so given the unlimited quality of dorm residents’ meal plans. In reality,  this profit-seeking meal plan system produces unacceptable levels of student food insecurity. According to data from the Cornell Undergraduate Experience survey 26 percent of those responding to the survey said they often or very often don’t have enough to eat. One in eight said very often, which reflects Tompkins County-wide food insecurity data according to a recent report by Tompkins Food Future: “11.6% of our friends, neighbors and colleagues struggle to regularly access good food.” We also see clear racial disparities with, for example, BIPOC students and community members facing barriers to food security at almost twice the rate of their white counterparts. Unfortunately, this data will not be available in 2023 because the University removed the question from the survey.

These statistics are also backed up by testified student experiences. From the Basic Needs Coalition survey, students shared the conflicts between Cornell demands and the countless financial barriers to students’ basic needs. A sophmore in CALS living in West Campus questioned, “Why is the meal plan required on West campus? Requiring unlimited meals is so financially challenging. Taking loans out to pay it is so frustrating. Should be optional. For those living in off-campus housing, prices conflict with the necessity of food. “I lost my job… I couldn’t afford rent or food. Unemployment never came. My food stamps are still processing and I have to focus on classes, despite never knowing how I’m going to fill my fridge. There aren’t enough resources for people like me.” a senior in ILR living in collegetown described.

So why are so many Cornell Dining managers insisting that their employees continue chucking out perfectly edible and nutritious food? This is not an issue of money, business model or even legality. This is a question of humanity and broader sustainability.

The various stakeholders of Cornell Dining must work together to do better. It’s not just

us telling you. It’s the law too.


Basic Needs Coalition 

Friendship Donations Network 

Food Recovery Network at Cornell 

Cornell Hunger Relief

Anabel’s Grocery

Climate Justice Cornell

Cornell Progressives

People’s Organizing Collective Cornell 

Catholic Charities Justice and Peace Ministry

Zero Waste Ithaca

New Roots Charter School Free Grocery Store Service Crew 

Dylan P. Rodgers is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Kieran A. Adams is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected] . Guest Room runs periodically this semester.