UMass Dining works to reduce amount of food waste created with weight measurement
As Thanksgiving approaches, many people hear about the holiday and conjure up images that embody feelings of fullness, warmth and rest.
While the holiday can offer these glossy promises, it also serves as an opportunity to remember that the cheeriness isn’t as ubiquitous for Americans who don’t partake in the same level of abundant consumption.
According to the Census Bureau, 14.7 million Americans live below the poverty line and one in three children go hungry every day. While millions suffer from food shortages, the average American wastes anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the food they purchase in a given year, according to the National Resources Defense council on Food Waste.
For many students at the University of Massachusetts, the question of where the next meal will come from can be answered by looking at their student ID and deciding which dining hall best suits their schedule. According to Director of Residential Dining Garett DiStefano, 19,000 students at UMass have some form of a meal plan.
More than six million meals are served each year between the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Dining Commons. Inevitably, during the steps of purchasing, processing, preparing, serving and consuming on a scale so large, there is going to be food unused or “wasted” in the process, according to DiStefano.
According to data retrieved from the Office of Waste Management, the four Dining commons on UMass’ campus produced just over 2.2 million pounds, or a little over 1,100 tons, of compostable waste in 2014. This translates to roughly $824,000 spent on composting unused supplies.
According to DiStefano, food waste is split in terms of solid and water waste. Thirty-five percent of the compostable waste produced by the dining commons is solid food waste.
How UMass calculates its waste
To calculate the total cost of the unused supplies of UMass Dining, DiStefano said their office tallies the retail cost of the supplies gone unused, and 9.4 percent of the Dining Services’ annual costs comes in the form of unused supplies.
So, to calculate the “real dollars” cost, their office tallies what 9.4 percent of their total spending budget – $25 million – and takes 35 percent of that number to determine how much in dollars is spent composting solid food. Using this equation, UMass Dining determines that $824,000 is spent composting solid food waste.
DiStefano went on to explain that waste is further divided into three categories of trim waste, production waste and post-consumer production waste. Trim waste is the portion of ingredients that can’t be used for the meals such as vegetable peels and roots or protein and fat trimmings from meat. These trims account for 15 percent of total solid compost produced.
Production, or pre-consumer waste, is the percentage of “over-produced” food that isn’t taken from the numerous food lines in the dining commons. This accounts for 25 percent of total compostable waste.
Distefano said that UMass Dining has made considerable steps in reducing overproduction numbers. At the end of each day, all the cooked supplies that aren’t consumed are weighed and calculated using a system called LeanPath. The computer program collects the weight and type of food and enters the information into a database. Using this information, Distefano said his chefs can see what types of food are over-produced and can plan ahead to reduce the amount of supplies set aside for each meal, each day.
The Office of Waste Management weighs the amount of solid waste and the Physical Plant transports all compostable materials to farms in Belchertown and Greenfield because the sheer volume of compost is unable to be processed on site according to DiStefano. Ken Toong, the Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises, and DiStefano said that they’ve received demands from students to explore options where unused products could be donated to local food banks or charities.
Giving back to the community
Both said that they try to be as positive of an impact in the surrounding community as possible. Dining Services does have one partnership with the Food Recovery project at their Worcester Dining Commons. Student volunteers come to Worcester at the end of the night to collect leftovers, place the food in hot bags and transport it to the First Baptist Church to be served. However, with waste reduction as their primary goal, dieticians and planners try to avoid incorporating donations into their cooking plans because it could contribute to unused food.
Dining Services is exploring options to expand the Recovery Project to the other dining commons but Toong said this is contingent on whether enough students volunteer with the program.
Distefano and Toong said that beyond monitoring preparation and made-to-serve data, they implement smaller preparation practices to mitigate food loss. The “just in time” cooking tactic, where meals are made about 30 minutes before being placed on the service line or are made right in front of the consumer at stations such as stir-fry, limit over production and provide a fresher meal for customers.
“With this type of customization, those ingredients aren’t being used until the order is set. Not only is the food fresher, but it’s healthier, tastier, and cuts down food waste. It’s like a triple benefit,” Toong said.
Toong said the philosophy at the Dining Services regarding the product they produce presents challenges that other dining programs don’t face. The choice to use fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed or frozen products increases the likelihood that ingredients will perish.
“It’s a challenge we’re willing to take. The food we make is a representation of us. We could use less healthy options to try to cut costs or we could use local produce to make a good product and use our minds to come up with resourceful ways to handle [the challenges that presents],” Toong said.
Distefano said that the majority of pre-consumer waste comes from overproduction, which is why they place such heavy emphasis on the LeanPath system. Any food at the end of each production day, once tallied, chefs attempt to reuse supplies for dishes the next day. Some perishable items can’t be reused and are discarded. Overproduction is an ongoing occurrence that the Dining Services actively tries to control, but the majority of unused food that makes it to a compost pile is a result of over consumption by students, according to DiStefano.
“About 60 percent of the total solid food waste we produce comes from the consumer side of the equation,” DiStefano said.
The need to move forward
Over-consumption in this sense is the act of taking more food than is actually consumed. The half-eaten sandwich, glass of milk or the scraps of dishes that don’t make it to the gullets of students all end up in a compost pile. So, of the over two million pounds of solid food waste and over $800,000 in costs, consumers account for 60 percent of those totals.
Distefano and Toong are actively trying to limit the waste on the production side but have also implemented slight changes to consumer behavior limit total food waste. The decision to eliminate trays and to produce smaller portions is an attempt to cut costs, waste and also offer healthier and more flavorful meals according to Toong.
DiStefano said the 1100 tons, or 2.2 million pounds, of compostable waste can appear shocking but in comparison to national averages, UMass is a leader in sustainability. The average restaurant loses about 15 percent of its retail value food supplies. The average Residence Dining on college campuses experiences similar numbers. DiStefano said that over the past three years, Dining Services has gained more customers and served more food but has reduced the number of compostable waste it produces.
“Over the past four or five years, we’ve gone from the mid 16 thousand to nearly 19 thousand students on the meal plan. We’re buying more food and cooking more meals. At the same time, we’ve reduced the overall volume of compostable waste,” Distefano said.
From Jan. 1, 2013 to May 1, 2015 Dining Services reduced over 234,000 pounds of pre consumer waste, translating to nearly $750,000 in savings according to data from the LeanPath database.
Toong said that his office is driven by the demands of students and that planners are always trying to reflect the desires of what he called the “millennial diner.”
“We’re always thinking ‘How can we buy more local, how can we be more efficient?’ How can we repurpose the food we don’t use, can we freeze vegetables to preserve their shelf-life? How can we practice ethical dining?’ The reason our costs are a little higher on average is because we strive to serve the best product with the best ingredients and we try to have a positive impact on the local farming community,” Toong said.
Toong said his Dining Services had a responsibility to limit their overproduction and explore news ways to reuse the “trim wastes” accumulated during the preparation of meals. However, in order to reduce the volume of wasted food, Toong said that students need to participate as well.
“What it comes down to most is education. We educate our staff on the best practices in cooking and we try to educate students as well. Take the food you know you’ll eat and we’ll continue making it the best can. A team effort is what I’m saying. The less food we waste, the less expensive our food will be,” Toong said.
Brendan Deady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.