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Onward Investigates: How Much Food Do The Dining Commons Waste?

I remember feeling completely overwhelmed my freshman year by the vast array of food that lay sprawled out before me every night in the dining commons.

Seeing trays on top of trays of food dished out to thousands of students a day in a seemingly never-ending stream was something I had never seen before. If I’m being honest, it was a worrying sight.

Even more troubling to me were the piles of uneaten food I would then see students shoveling off their plates into waste bins at the end of their meals. All of this food and waste got me thinking — how much of this stuff do we waste each day? each week? each year?

And while I never got my answer as a freshman, it’s a question that has haunted me ever since. But last semester, I began joining my now-freshman brother for weekly dinners in the dining commons, and the thought resurfaced in my mind. So I set out to find the answers to my questions.

My investigation into the world of dining commons waste led me to Anna Sostarecz, the sustainability coordinator for Penn State’s Auxillary and Business Services. She told me that Penn State didn’t currently have figures relating to how much food was wasted in the dining commons on a weekly, daily, or even yearly basis.

However, that wouldn’t be the case for much longer, thanks to a newly implemented system in South Food District called LeanPath.

In the past, dining commons across campus have tried tracking food disposal by weighing and cataloging compost waste and using those figures to paint a picture of overall consumer waste. While the intentions behind this method were good, the figures it provided were virtually meaningless.

“It almost became like they were excited to throw out more compost instead of less. They were like, ‘Oh we’re composting, that’s good,'” Sostarecz said. “That’s not what we want. We had no idea what was being thrown out, what time of day it was being thrown away, or even what meal it was from.”

In and of itself, composting is good, but when you start generating too much compost, it just becomes trash. Moreover, a lot of the composting bins on Penn State’s campus have become heavily contaminated with plastics, rendering them useless, so the material was sent to landfills in the end anyway.

LeanPath is different in that it allows both cooks in the back of house and student patrons in the dining commons to garner a better understanding of how much they’re wasting.

For those working in the back of house, scales are provided to weigh and catalog what’s being thrown away and why. It prompts them to make more conscious decisions about what’s going to waste and allows those working to improve sustainability to understand how they can make improvements.

Students, on the other hand, utilize a system called Spark. When they go to throw away their waste, they’re greeted with a screen informing them of the current day’s food waste, measured in pounds, versus that of the previous day. Every time they throw something out, the food is weighed and added to the total on the screen.

The information that’s collected here is aggregated as a post-consumer waste number that’s then sent to the LeanPath software system, which Sostarecz analyzes.

“Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that we make 200 food choices a day and a lot of those choices are throwing away food, so being more conscious of those food choices can help people reduce food waste on their own,” Sostarecz said.

LeanPath is designed to be a money-saving system. By understanding waste patterns more thoroughly, users can better understand how to cook and consume more responsibly.

“The idea is that we can see what food is being wasted. Like, just for the last week, raw vegetables and boneless chicken were the top foods that were thrown out. So then on the purchasing side of [Housing and Food Services], we’ll be able to just buy less and make less, so then there’s less waste,” Sostarecz said.

At this point, LeanPath has only been implemented in Redifer. However, the hope is that with time the mechanism will prove useful enough to be implemented in Penn State’s other dining areas.

Currently, Penn State is behind many other Big Ten schools in its commitment to sustainability. According to Sostarecz, Penn State students aren’t thinking or demanding improvements in sustainability as much as other schools. This unfortunate fact is something that HFS hopes to change with LeanPath

And while the system may still be new (it was implemented on January 5), it’s already making significant headway into improving consumer waste numbers.

“It’s starting to have an impact already. We’re seeing a reduction in some of our food waste in the back house,” Sostarecz said. “It’s encouraging positive action and less food waste by reinforcing that as the social norm. It’s been incredible to see.”

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About the Author

Emma Dieter

Emma is a junior from the ever popular "right-outside" Philly area studying labor employment relations and PR. She's also the Assistant Student Life editor for Onward State. She has been a Penn Stater from cradle and will continue to bleed blue and white, 'til grave. She loves trashy romance novels, watching Netflix, and crying over cute videos of dogs. If you ever want to talk more with her about how great she is, or simply have other inquiries, feel free to email her at [email protected]

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