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March 17, 2022

Food composting in the Dining hall pushes sustainability

Landscape+view+of+the+main+Dining+Hall+at+Utica+University.++
Chakradhar Palli
Landscape view of the main Dining Hall at Utica University.

Those with meal plans on campus have likely noticed a slight change in operations at Utica University’s dining hall. This semester, thrown-out food is now being composted and repurposed to minimize the effects of food waste on campus. 

Food composting on campus was prompted by a New York State-wide initiative to incorporate more sustainable practices into university dining. 

“[New York state is] looking for renewable energies and composting is one of those renewable energies,” said Damian Boehlert, Utica University’s food service director. “Sodexo and the university, we like to be sustainable.”

The university partners with an external company to pick up discarded food and take it to a center for composting. Afterward, reports are routinely sent to Boehlert’s email, indicating how many pounds of waste was processed each day and its cost. 

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“On average, we are composting 135-40 pounds per day,” he said. “Since we’ve opened, probably 8,700 pounds.”

Erin Kelly, the program director for dietetics and nutrition and coordinates the Tangerine Grove food pantry. She said the addition of this recycling process is “fantastic.” 

“It’s a fairly simple process and the environmental benefit is huge,” Kelly said. “The reduction in waste that the university has to pay for the removal of is significant.”

Kelly noted that several big factors contribute to food waste at universities. One of them being buffet-style dining halls. 

“A couple of the big issues that contribute are the all-you-can-eat dining halls, swipe in and eat whatever you want, because people tend to put more food on their plate that they know they’ll eat,” she said. 

The other contributing factor, according to Kelly, is “using trays in addition to plates” which gives students more room to pile on food that they often neglect to finish. 

The university decided to eliminate food trays several years ago. Boehlert said that this initiative was “huge” and “unreal” in its impact on rates of food waste. 

Food service staff are also monitoring and measuring food waste directly in the dining hall. 

“We have a food waste scale out there. We track it, figure out how much it’s costing, whether it’s a pizza burnt to cutting scraps from a cantaloupe, we record all that,” Boehlert said. “We do a really good job of that.”

In addition to composting efforts, Utica University has stalled its food waste through its involvement with the Food Recovery Network, a national organization. The university has its chapter, which was initiated by Kelly.

“Students [and] volunteers will take food that’s been prepared in the dining hall but not eaten and as long as there’s a fairly large quantity left, they will take that food and repackage it and donate it to local hunger relief organizations,” she said.

Minimizing food waste in a college setting comes with challenges as students can be uninformed about food scarcity and waste, leading to excess amounts of wasted food. 

“I definitely have noticed a lot of food waste, especially in the dining hall,” said Julianna Colavita, a nutrition major. “A lot of the time when you throw out your food, you will sometimes see full plates of food being wasted and thrown out.”

Colavita said the composting initiative is “really great” and suggested that the dining hall “offer more favorable and more popular food options that students enjoy” to reduce the amount of food that is tried and thrown out. Educating students about small changes they can make, such as using reusable bottles instead of the plastic cups provided in the dining hall, would help in the reduction of food waste. 

“Some habits are hard to break, but maybe putting forth some sort of educational campaign to encourage students to not take as much food and maybe telling them the negative effects,” Kelly said.

This story was originally published on The Tangerine on November 17, 2023.