EU getting a handle on food waste

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 9:34 PM
EU getting a handle on food waste by Shayma Musa
Photo: Jamie Heinrich

This is the first in a continuing series that looks at how Edinboro University is becoming more environmentally friendly.

Every morning, alarm clocks across the Edinboro campus go off, one by one, welcoming hungry college students to a new day. Some choose to eat a breakfast of leftovers, or use their dormitory kitchen to prepare a hot breakfast for themselves. But many choose to grab a quick plate at Van Houten Dining Hall. 

The ROTC cadets are often first to enter. By 7 a.m., they’ve already completed a strenuous morning exercise regime. They waste no time and claim a long table near the center of the dining hall — ready to chow. Athletes follow, and as the morning drags on, the dining hall ebbs and flows with conversation. Plates empty. Stomachs fill.

These students don’t share the same choice in food, or even eat at the same time, however, they all do one thing before they leave for class — they set their plates in the dish depository.

This is where the story gets interesting: what’s scraped off those plates by the kitchen staff at Van Houten totals approximately 3,000 gallons of food waste annually at Edinboro University. And that number doesn’t include waste from kitchens in Pogue, attached to dining options like Absurd Bird, Sushi Do and Scotland Subs.

Executive chef at the university, Justin Stull, clarified further. “That number is made up of not only the food that is scraped off of plates, but it also includes numbers from meal prep, as well as waste from prepping the to-go cups that are sold in Ross, Pogue and [the] library.” On the latter, that waste can come from vegetable and fruit peels, as well as from prepping salads.

These are the daily numbers Stull reports out of the kitchen at Van Houten:
1,200 meals
400 to-go cups (these can be fruit or veggie cups)
150 sandwiches
80 to 100 salads

“There isn’t as much food waste on the part of the ready-made to-go meals, mostly because it has a shelf life of 3 days, and you guys buy it up like it’s going out of style,” Stull explained. “We have more food waste from students taking too much and throwing it away than we do from prepping the food.”

He next spoke about how dining services has attempted to cut down that waste. “We went from buffet-style pizza, buffet-style grill, and now it’s all made to order. Mostly everything that isn’t used we can repurpose and use the next day in another meal.”

That’s not to say the issue is completely solved.

“This year (academic), it’s more on the part of students. Things like getting a hamburger and then going and getting a hot dog, or getting a pizza and pasta and throwing that all away. That contributes to it.”

Jeff Severs, Chartwells senior director of food services at Edinboro, explained that the company reports “out food waste numbers to corporate.” Then, “they compile all of those numbers and see how our district is doing and how we’re doing as a company.”

It is company procedure for Chartwells to track food waste, and their corporate website states that they plan to reduce total food waste by 25 percent by the end of 2020.

In 2015, Edinboro University implemented their own plan called Sustainable EU.

The plan outlines nine key projects: installation of electric hand dryers, the implementation of an LED replacement program (which replaces all old light fixtures with LED ones), academic programming relating to sustainability, increases in efficiencies in McComb Fieldhouse, development of an environmental sustainability committee and standards, installation of water bottle refill stations, a policy to reduce our carbon footprint, bringing in an external consultant for grounds assessment and recommendations, and most relevant to food waste, the implementation of a food service vegetable garden.

The Garden + Composting

For Stull and Severs, implementing the food service vegetable garden is another way to decrease food waste in Edinboro.

“I added it all out, and we got right around 1,400 pounds of product out of the garden this year. It was mostly zucchini, squash, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and beets. That was right around 800 pounds. We were pulling 30 to 40 pounds out of the garden every other day for like two months straight,” Stull said.

Now, he’s working with the university to approve a composting pilot program. This program will allow Stull to build one composting bin and measure about how much compost it makes. That compost will then be used in the garden to grow more vegetables for use in meals at Van Houten. Food waste from the dining hall will be used to make the compost.

Stull first planted the garden in 2017. According to him, it began as just two beds of tomatoes, some lettuce, beans, cucumber and squash, but grew this past summer to include nearly 15 different types of produce.

“We had a lot of feedback from it this year. The company came out to see it, and students were involved, and the school in general was really positive about it.” Stull said. “It was really a community thing.”

Stull hopes that the garden will be expanded to cover the entire grassy area on the north side of Van Houten in the Summer of 2020.

National Trends

Across the U.S., colleges campuses have begun to address the issue of food waste. According to Recycling Works, a program based in Massachusetts, the average college students wastes about 142 pounds of food a year. They found that, as a whole, college campuses contribute 22 million pounds of food waste to the national average every year (the total national average is 133 billion pounds).

Closer to home, Meadville-based Allegheny College has a university-funded composting facility that, according to the sustainability page on their website, composts 800-900 pounds of food a day, along with compostable paper and plastic waste. This compost is then put to use by their facilities department to use in the upkeep of the campus lawns, sports facilities and gardens. On average, annually they produce 2,000 yards of compost, which equates to 4,000 metric tons of carbon storage. In other words, that’s about 18 football fields worth of compost.

Contributing reporter: Jamie Heinrich

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