June 1, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Dining Is Proud of Its Partnerships and Efforts Addressing Food Insecurity and Waste

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The leadership of Cornell Dining and Campus Life Enterprise Services was surprised and disappointed to read the recent Guest Room column, “Dear Cornell: You’re Breaking the Law and Students Are Going Hungry,” featuring opinions and allegations signed by some of our valued partners and other community groups.

We’d like to set the record straight: Cornell Dining is committed to recognizing and alleviating food insecurity, and reducing food waste, and we’re proud to say that our food recovery efforts, which simultaneously touch both, have kept growing from year to year.

Cornell Dining’s status as an ‘enterprise service’ doesn’t mean that we operate at a profit, but that we are expected to sustain our operations with the revenues we bring in. The reality is that we do our best to break even and offer a good value to our students and other guests, despite ever-rising costs of food, energy, supplies, and labor.

Transitioning to a required meal plan for campus residents has allowed us to lower the cost of an unlimited meal plan to what had previously been the level of our 14 meals per week plan, making the unlimited plan at the same time fully covered by nearly all financial aid packages and more affordable to students not on financial aid. Placing the unlimited meal plan where it will be covered by financial aid is just one of several steps we’ve taken in our efforts to reduce food insecurity.

Cornell Dining is also an active participant in the Swipe Out Hunger program, by which students with unused guest or ‘bonus’ meal swipes are encouraged to share those with fellow students who need them, via our partnership with the First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support team in the Office of the Dean of Students.

We operate the Cornell Food Pantry with the help of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, providing a wide variety of shelf-stable staple food items, fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit, dairy items, eggs, and meat, and ready-to-eat meals, to any students, staff, or faculty who need that support. On average, we source 3,000 pounds of food weekly from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, and have distributed 74,501 pounds of food since January 2022. (At the height of the pandemic, Cornell Dining also operated a Community Food Pantry in partnership with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center in Downtown Ithaca. Over the course of four months, we distributed 199,368 meals, or 232,596 pounds of food.)

Cornell Dining is also proud to have helped launch and to provide ongoing support to Anabel’s Grocery, a student-run initiative to make fresh and affordable groceries available to students, while educating students on SNAP and other resources available to them and offering healthful recipe suggestions and food preparation guidance. We’re also grateful for the efforts of Cornell Hunger Relief, a project of the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, which encourages fellow students to donate non-perishable food items each May. They’re in the midst of this year’s collection; in May 2022 they were able to pass along 4,500 pounds of food via community partners.

We partner with the student-run volunteer Food Recovery Network and community organization Friendship Donations Network that collect prepared food that won’t be served, but is still usable, from some of our residential dining rooms and retail locations, and they provide it to local food banks. This program has donated on average 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of food per academic year, and we have been donating usable food up to the capacity of these partner programs. We added a sixth eatery to the list of participating dining units this spring, which Food Recovery Network had previously been unable to collect from ‘due to lack of drivers,’ in their words.

Prepared food in coolers in our retail eateries that are only open during the week are consolidated each Friday and redistributed to eateries that are open over the weekend. The same occurs with our bakery items.

We monitor food waste with waste logs in each and every unit, and we learn from what happens each week how we can best plan for the following 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. 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.

Food that can’t be donated for a variety of reasons is composted through our partnership with Farm Services, to reduce what we send to the landfill. The resulting compost is used for gardening and agricultural projects on campus and in the community.

We believe that Cornell Dining is obeying not just the letter but the spirit of the law, reducing food waste in every way that we can, donating excess edible food to the extent that we’re able to, due to limitations on the availability of students and other volunteers to pick up, transport, and distribute the food, and composting remaining food scraps. This is a challenging but vital commitment, and one we’re proud to carry on alongside these and other partners in the Cornell community and beyond.

Paul Muscente was the former Assistant Manager of the Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery and is the current Director of Cornell Dining. He can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester and summer terms.