Dining Hall Waste Made Sustainable Through Compost and Food Rescue

You see a new dish at the dining hall that looks good so you take a serving, bring it back to your table, sit down, take a bite—and you don’t like it. To many, this is a familiar story, and a seemingly
inconsequential one at our all-you-can-eat dining facilities. You’ll put your
plate on the dish return belt and try something else, forgetting about what has
just become classified as food waste.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in 2013 that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. Food waste falls into three categories: Post-production food waste is left over after meals; pre-production food
waste refers to waste generated in the preparation of food, such as vegetable
peels or egg shells; and excess prepared food is food
that has been prepared for consumption but is never served.

To counter the problem of food waste, 5C students and dining halls alike, often collaboratively, have made systematic changes to increase
sustainability through composting and food rescue programs.

Every dining hall across the Claremont Colleges composts or is working toward composting in
some form. Composting refers to any
process used to decompose food scraps and other green matter into soil, which typically accelerates the breakdown of this organic waste in
one way or another.

Pomona College dining halls, which compost both post- and pre-production scraps, are the only dining halls at which diners can separate their compost before returning their dishes.

While Pitzer College used to compost post-production food waste, food separated by diners before they return their dishes is no longer composted.

Cindy Bennington, the general manager of McConnell Dining Hall, said that it is “tough with the volume that we do to do the separation.”

However, Pitzer still composts pre-production food scraps, donating them twice weekly to a garden run by the Pitzer in Ontario program. 

Bennington said that they intend to increase the program’s activity level, but have run into challenges with labor resources, transportation, and storage. 

Compost from Malott Commons at Scripps College also travels outside of the 5Cs. The Plant Justice garden at San Antonio High School, located just a couple miles from campus, uses food scraps from Malott to supplement their own in their compost, which they use to fertilize their garden. 

Collins Dining Hall at Claremont McKenna College recently purchased composting machines. These machines live behind the ever-rotating line of trays in Collins and are fed both pre- and post-production food waste. They can break down food into usable compost in less than a day, and the product is used in CMC campus landscaping. 

At Hoch-Shanahan Dining Hall at Harvey Mudd College, a composting system has yet to be implemented, but one is currently in the works. 

“We are also currently working with members of Engineers for a Sustainable World/Mudders Organizing for Sustainability Solutions (ESW/MOSS) on campus to continue being more sustainable throughout the dining services program,” Hoch-Shanahan General Manager Miguel Ruvulcaba wrote in an email to TSL. “Right now, we are focusing on finding ways to minimize our waste through composting or other methods.”

Another way that students have become involved in waste reduction at the dining halls is through food rescue programs. Chapters of the national organization Food Recovery Network exist at the CMC, Scripps, HMC, and Pomona dining halls. Through this program, unused, prepared food from the dining halls is donated to area food banks. Student volunteers pick up food from the dining halls and drive it to the donation center most evenings each week.

“This semester, we have drivers scheduled for six out of seven nights,” said Abe Cass PO ’14, the organizer of the Pomona food rescue operation. “Any time that we have drivers and the dining hall has leftovers and there are going to be people at the family shelter, we deliver.”

Glenys Kirana CM ’16 works with the group that retrieves food from Collins and the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, a formal dining venue at CMC. 

“We do food recovery every Thursday from Collins and bring it over to Pomona Valley Christian Center,” Kirana wrote in an email to TSL. “They usually have 4 trays of food ranging from grains, vegetables to meat (sometimes). “Before we leave Collins with the food, we take the temperature (has to be below 40′ to meet health standards) and weight of the food donated. On Fridays, we do food recovery from the Ath and bring it over to the same church.”

Collins General Manager Pam Franco said that the dining hall staff has worked with students to devise a system to make sure that food is stored and transported properly. 

“We want to make sure that we’re providing safe food for anyone who is going to consume it,” Franco said. 

Franco also said that the dining hall staff and students have many goals in common. 

“It’s almost easy to work side by side with student initiatives because they are many of the same things,” she said. “We’d always like to hear from a student.”

Jake Dittes HM ’15, the president of ESW/MOSS, said that Mudd’s dining hall, and General Manager Ruvulcaba in particular, has coordinated with students and provided financial support for the purchase of trays used to transport the food. 

“He’s very supportive of the program,” Dittes said. “He’s under the attitude that if we can help one person for one night, then it’s all worth it.”

Juliana Beall SC ’16, a co-founder of the 5C Humane Alliance, which collaborated with Malott Commons on developing their egg standards, has advice for students looking to help enact changes in dining halls.

“I would advise students to be very humble while talking to people,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “There is a lot going on in the dining halls in terms of trying to get better food and balancing the budget and there are people working hard to do that.”

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