Why the waste: what to know and do about food waste on campus

Vanderbilt SPEAR empowers students to reduce food waste through data and practical advice

Last year, Vanderbilt’s Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR) hosted a Scrape Your Plate Day in Commons, in which they collected a total 593.25 pounds of uneaten food from students. The event was part of an ongoing effort by the organization to raise awareness about food waste on Vanderbilt’s campus.

Rachel Flores, the Vice President of Dining for SPEAR discussed the organization’s role.

“SPEAR is the largest environmental organization on campus,” Flores said. “It’s really an overarching type thing, so we focus on educating the student body about sustainability and environmental issues, and then we also do recycling… and we also volunteer.”

SPEAR targeted on-campus food waste through Scrape Your Plate Day last spring. SPEAR and Vanderbilt Food Justice volunteers stood by the conveyor belt at the Commons dining center and scraped students’ leftover food into a trashcan. The volunteers were not only able to collect data, but they also engaged in meaningful conversations with diners.

“It was really cool because we got to have conversations with a lot of students,” Flores said. “I feel like a lot of students feel like they have to get all their sides or use all their meal swipes when they actually wouldn’t eat it all, and so that’s great when they have a donate-a-side-type thing, but we don’t have that all the time. It’s good to have conversations because a lot of students brought up this kind of thing. It’s like they’re thinking about it, but they don’t actually think about what they can do.”

Vanderbilt students are not the only ones confronting the issue of food waste. Suzanne Herron, the Sustainability Coordinator of Vanderbilt Dining discussed the many behind-the-scenes efforts of Campus Dining to cut back on food waste. According to Herron, this issue is a huge priority.

“[Food waste] is always on my radar,” Herron said. “I’m always meeting with people constantly about it.”

One suggestion students often bring up is that of a year-round Share-A-Side program. While Herron acknowledged that Share-A-Side has been helpful for specific disasters such as the recent hurricanes, she explained that, due to the nature of the meal plan, a year-round program is not feasible.

“Generally speaking, sharing a side and making that always an option- that’s kind of tricky, and the reason behind that is parents pay for a meal plan, and it’s not really a philanthropic initiative,” Herron said.

In terms of food preparation, Campus Dining constantly tracks peak sale periods and the popularity of various items in order to project the amount needed of a particular food for a particular day. The data is gathered by the checkout line cashiers who punch in the items students are consuming. Food is then prepared based on that information.

Although uncommon due to the data collection system, when leftover food is present, it is ultimately donated to Nashville Rescue Mission. Refrigerated trucks come and transport the food in a safe manner to be distributed to the less fortunate.

Two Campus Dining initiatives, one in Rand and another in Commons, seek to reduce the amount of food waste that is thrown into landfills. The ORCA food digester at Rand, Vanderbilt’s most popular dining hall, is located in the basement where the produce is prepared. Instead of being thrown into the trash, the leftover food is put into the ORCA digester, mixed with enzyme chips, then constantly turned and sprayed with water in order to reduce the waste to a liquid form that can easily be poured down the day. Herron estimates that 100 pounds of food waste a day is being saved from the landfill. Likewise, in Commons, a pulper processes post-consumer waste from the conveyor belt, including napkins. All the liquid is removed, reducing the waste to its most condensed form so that there is less being thrown in the landfill.

Ultimately, Herron points to awareness as the greatest obstacle in terms of food waste. In an effort to raise awareness, the monitors at Rand and Commons occasionally flash food facts. In addition, some of the table tents at the dining halls have displayed facts concerning food waste. Campus Dining remains aware of the data gathered at Scrape Your Plate Day.

“We’re constantly meeting with SPEAR, with VIVA, with different student groups who are also concerned, to brainstorm and see what we can do again to have more awareness on the Vanderbilt Community’s part, to be aware that what you’re choosing to eat hopefully you will make good use of and not throw away,” Herron said.

Acknowledging students’ need to get their money’s worth from the meal plan, Herron suggests choosing easily portable sides such as bananas that can be consumed later at the dorm. She also suggests simply asking the servers for smaller servings. Flores also promotes this method.

“One thing that we were telling students during the Scrape Your Plate Day event was you can talk to the dining workers and be like, ‘Actually, that’s enough, that’s good,’” Flores said. “But sometimes they don’t hear you at first, but sometimes it works, so it’s fine.”

While Campus Dining provides initiatives to eliminate food waste, ultimately, as the consumers, the responsibility rests in students’ hands.

“At the end of the day, we can’t make people’s choices for them,” Herron said. “It’s back to mindfulness.”

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Heream Yang (2021) is a writer for the Campus section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. She proudly hails from the suburbs of Houston, Texas, but is excited to explore Nashville. Although currently an HOD major, she is very undecided about her future. In her free time, Heream enjoys exploring nature, shopping, and watching Netflix.

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