When he was a kid, my dad wasn’t allowed to leave the dinner table until he had finished everything on his plate. Still scarred from stomaching more canned peas and carrots than he wanted, my dad never forced me to finish my food. At dinnertime, he would usually just repeat his favorite mantra, “Chew slowly,” and encourage me to take only what I would actually eat.
Except when overwhelmed by options at the new Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, I think my dad’s parenting was about as effective as his parents’: I usually finish whatever is on my plate. A lot of Stanford students don’t, though. Our campus still generates somewhere on the order of 1,300 tons of food waste each year.
Stanford’s commitment to waste reduction was first apparent to me at a “zero waste lunch” during Admit Weekend. Zero waste events feature all-compostable materials in an attempt to raise awareness about the unfortunate ease and frequency with which we throw away food and packaging materials. It’s important to focus attention on waste streams, since the average Stanford student generates almost 14 pounds of waste each week. Of that, 1.8 pounds per person are “food service organics.” Some simple math suggests that a student generates, on average, 95 pounds of food waste per year, and that’s just in the end consumption stage.
Zero waste lunches are an effective outreach strategy, but their name is a little misleading. Having volunteered at “zero waste” events like the recent Spring Faire, I’ve seen how much material gets placed into plastic trash bins at the end of the event. Sure, the waste in these bins is headed toward a compost facility instead of a landfill, but it’s still waste.
Serving food on compostable plates or containers is a step in the right direction, but we need to be more conscious of the food waste left on those plates (not to mention the energy and resources used to produce the single-use, disposable plates). Perhaps the events would be more aptly named “zero landfill” affairs, because then students might consider the fact that uneaten food is still waste, even if it goes to a composting facility.
The amount of food wasted on our planet is a symptom of our faulty food systems. Almost a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted somewhere along the path from production to consumption. Last year, this meant 1.3 billion tons of food were lost or wasted. In developed countries like the United States, consumers are to blame for much of this wasted food.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the developed world wastes 222 million tons of food each year. This number is almost equivalent to the amount of food produced annually in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Americans are prime offenders. We waste 40 percent of the food produced for human consumption, at a cost of over $100 billion annually.
Recognizing this problem, Stanford students and staff have rallied to target food waste reduction through their “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign. Stanford Dining, acting much like my dad, encourages students to take only what they will eat. Any uneaten food is scraped into composting bins and transported to the Newby Island compost facility by the Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc., where it is turned into usable mulch that is then driven back to campus for use in gardens and landscaping. It’s better than sending the food to a landfill where it would produce methane (a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide) during anaerobic decay, but driving food up and down the Peninsula still produces unnecessary carbon emissions.
The Stanford Project on Hunger tries to further reduce waste by taking leftovers from dining halls and houses to the Palo Alto Opportunity Center, but their limited volunteer base can’t do everything. So the onus is back on students, faculty and staff.
It’s probably impossible to achieve a “zero waste” food system, but there are some steps we can take before, during and after meals to reduce food waste. The Worldwatch Institute encourages Americans to be realistic about meals, plan ahead, go small at mealtime, use self-serving meal stations, store leftovers, compost food scraps, repurpose food into new meals and donate excess. Some of these steps are not that applicable to students eating in dining halls, but it’s a pretty simple, important list to remember for post-college life. In campus dining halls, though, it boils down to the message my dad taught me as a child: Take only what you think you’ll actually eat. You can always go back for seconds.
Want to share your leftovers with a house of hungry hippies? Email Jenny at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu, and she’ll make sure your food gets eaten.