By Sarah Fullerton
Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of all produced food is wasted. Simultaneously, in Marion County, over 12 percent of the population was food insecure as identified by the USDA as of 2015 data. Food insecurity is the economic condition of a family or individual that prevents adequate access to food nutritious and plentiful enough to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Further, the county’s current poverty rate is at 16.5 percent, according to Data USA’s online distribution of US government public data.
Over my years at Willamette, I’ve seen huge volumes of food on the slow, revolving display that is the tray reception area at the Goudy cafeteria. I’ve felt helpless and discouraged about it, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of waste that I have also contributed to.
I’ve seen a range of responses to this, from students who take it upon themselves to reduce this waste and score a free meal by perusing the rejected trays, to students who justify their over-eager taking with the belief that the food will just be thrown away no matter what. Fortunately, this is not the case.
In the fall of 2014, Willamette students established their own chapter of the nationwide, student-driven nonprofit called the Food Recovery Network (FRN). This puts Willamette among 230 college campuses nationwide who are associated with the FRN.
Each night, student FRN volunteers collect large tupperware bins of food, weigh them, take temperatures to ensure the food is still safe to consume and transport them to nearby organizations including the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) and Women at the Well Grace House. Both are agencies that take in homeless or transient populations and offer services.
FRN student volunteers have also provided data back to the Bon Appetít staff to inform them about the types and quantities of food that are prone to waste based on the weight measurements they take before delivering it. This knowledge can hopefully reduce the amount of produced food that is wasted in the first place.
This FRN student effort is able to transport what averages out to around 60 pounds of food each day, according to reports by the Statesman Journal. Supplementary cooking by chefs at UGM and Women at the Well Grace House can stretch this to serve even more people.
However, the amount that can be donated is reduced significantly by the volume of food that is dished onto plates and then left uneaten. Bon Appetít staff like executive chef Andre Uribe are determined to make good use of this surplus as well. They provide it as compost to partnering farms, including Sunnyside Organics, where it can be used as worm casting. This means the compost is eaten by worms who can then produce fertilizer. The food that is fertilized by the leftovers is then bought back and served in Goudy; it’s a circular relationship.
Based on Weigh the Waste events put on by the FRN that have taken place over the past couple years, it appears that on a regular night, our community that utilizes the cafeteria is leaving upwards of 200 pounds of food uneaten on plates. This calculates out to about .25 pounds of food waste per student per meal.
There is a problem in framing with “all-you-can-eat” meals, which nominally encourages customers to stuff their plates in order to get their money’s worth. Bon Appetít dining services have seemed to push back on this culture with the slightly different phrase “all-you-care-to-eat,” but this does not solve the problem. Another element of the waste-reducing efforts is trayless Tuesdays. More than just reducing water or cutting down on cleaning work, the removal of trays in cafeterias nationwide has proven to reduce food waste by about 30 percent, according to Bon Appetít’s website.
In just the first year of Willamette’s FRN chapter being established, more than 10,000 pounds of food waste were recovered and donated. That means over 8,000 meals in total were made available, or about 40 per day for every academic day. The efforts are evolving all the time, and current goals include partnering with the Marion Polk Food Share and getting a cargo bike to transport the food more sustainably.