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Food Waste On Campus

Food Waste On Campus

Small-scale solutions to a large-scale problem


New Englanders are known for handling difficult situations with grit and dignity, quietly making do with the resources on hand. The region’s hardworking communities, northern climate and rich history instill this mentality and shape the culture of Yankee ingenuity and self-sufficiency that distinguishes our northeast corner of the country.

Also deeply imbedded in the landscape is a tradition of higher education. With an abundance of world-class colleges and universities packed into six small states, New England’s schools instill these same values into the students and faculty that pass through. Our campuses use their resources not only to educate through science, humanities, business and arts, but also to solve global issues using their tradition of self-sufficiency. Today these schools are closing the gap on food waste, an issue that has spun out of control across the country, spilling into the complex arenas of hunger, climate change and food policy. Our colleges and universities are in an incredible position to set institutional standards—within higher learning and elsewhere—as the nation fights against this disastrous, yet fixable problem.

Nearly a third of all food in America goes to waste and finally, in 2016, it was all over the headlines. The waste alone is cringe-worthy and embarrassing, as most of us are guilty of tossing leftovers, knowing that millions of Americans live in food-insecure homes everyday. But the tragedy doesn’t stop there. Food waste eventually makes its way from a trash bin to a large landfill, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change. So the food that you don’t utilize, can’t finish at dinner or has gone past the sell-by date on the supermarket shelf, eventually turns into the 30 million pounds of organic matter sitting in landfills across the country, slowly helping to raise global temperatures.

In the past few years most New England states have created laws that limit (with the intention to eventually ban) organic waste from large institutions. Each state’s law is slightly different, but generally speaking an institution that produces more than one ton of organic waste a week is required to divert it from a landfill if that institution is in proximity to a compost facility. These state laws were put into place between 2012 and 2016, depending on the state, and have been rolled out gradually. 

Colleges and universities feed a lot of people at once, several times a day. Most of them offer an “all you can eat” meal plan, making their dining halls ripe for waste production. But because of that ingenuity (and sometimes large endowments), New England schools are at the forefront of closing the waste gap on a scale that can make a difference. While the new legislation has pushed in the right direction, several schools are taking their own approaches to minimizing the problem. 

Nicole Civita, faculty member and assistant director of the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at Sterling College, developed a food conservation strategy that includes four approaches to the food waste puzzle: feeding the system, feeding the people, source reduction and creating a cultural shift. 

Babson College Sustainability Manager Alexander Davis says he has been thinking about how to divert waste since 2008. When the food waste ban went into effect in Massachusetts in 2013, the Sustainability Office on Babson’s Wellesley, Massachusetts, campus rolled out a robust composting program that today is collecting two tons of waste per week and turning it into rich compost. The college partners with a trash hauling service that picks up the organic waste in dumpsters and distributes it to regional farms. This includes kitchen prep waste, leftovers and food that was never served.

Babson has a strong commitment to sustainability across its campus not only with the composting program, but additional recycling, energy and green business initiatives. Davis is working on bringing the work that’s happening within his Sustainability Office, and in many ways behind the scenes, to the forefront by integrating the concepts into the college’s curriculum.

In addition to his role at Babson, Davis is on the management team at Greener U, a Watertown, Massachusetts–based consulting firm that helps institutions plan and implement sustainable systems from composting to energy and design. 

Greener U helped Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, launch a composting program in the summer of 2016 that mirrors Babson’s in several ways. Jessica Barry, sustainability manager at Brown, explains that the university’s goal is to reach 50% waste diversion by 2020. “It’s an aggressive goal, but doable,” she says. By conducting a waste audit, Barry determined that the university could divert 600 tons of organic waste per year that comes out of its six main dining halls.

Brown partners with the Compost Plant, a young Rhode Island company that is taking a leading role in food waste reduction in the Ocean State. The Compost Plant contracts with many schools, businesses, restaurants and festivals on food scrap collection, all of which is taken to Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and turned into high-quality compost. The organic material is then redistributed through the Compost Plant’s delivery service. 

“We turn food scraps into compost and soil blends that help gardeners and farmers grow more local food. We believe more local food means healthier communities… and we believe it all starts with healthy soil,” says Leo Pollock, co-founder of the Compost Plant.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University’s food waste recovery program narrows its focus on feeding hungry individuals and families in the Boston area. This effort was spearheaded in 2014 by a partnership between the Harvard Dining Service; Food For Free, a Cambridge-based food recovery organization; and the national Food Donation Connection. “Both organizations provided a pivotal link in our food waste reduction efforts,” says Crista Martin, Harvard’s director of Strategies, Initiatives and Communications. 

Several times a week Food For Free collects leftover food at the end of service from each of Harvard’s 13 dining locations. Each food item is separated out, placed in large plastic bags, labeled, weighed, logged and frozen. These bulk items are then repackaged and portioned into nutritionally balanced frozen meals and distributed to homeless families in transition living in Boston-area hotels. A Cambridge elementary school and Somerville High School also receive these donations for their students and families in need. The for-profit Food Donation Connection donates the bags, scales and online systems. 

About 2,500 pounds of quality food a day is collected from Harvard. This is supplemented by smaller donations from Tufts, MIT, Emmanuel College, Boston University and Google. “Our goal is to create a prepared food model that others can replicate, “ says Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free. Today the organization’s greatest challenge is finding sufficient freezer space. 

Harvard also operates two student-run homeless shelters on campus, which receive food donations from the campus dining halls. 

The Food Recovery Network, a student-run movement with chapters on campuses across the country, is also working to feed people. These groups are fighting hunger with food recovery from their own dining halls and distribution to partner agencies. Active chapters exist from coast to coast, including Brown and Roger Williams Universities. 

Source reduction simply means not creating waste in the first place, and Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, is doing a great job of this. The dining service is run by Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service operator that prides itself on from-scratch, sustainable dining solutions for institutions and businesses. At the head of the operation at Roger Williams are Chef Jonathan Cambra and Café Manager Joshua Hennessy, who think about waste management daily.

In addition to composting (also through the Compost Plant twice a week) and making donations to two shelters in Middletown and Newport, Cambra and his team feel a great responsibility to repurposing and reducing their waste before it even gets out of the kitchen. As a chef-driven company, Bon Appétit draws culinary staff familiar with cooking from scratch and finding ways to utilize products to their fullest before they reach the compost bin. Each member of the kitchen staff holds a piece of the puzzle with their daily handling of food. 

“When food is cooked and cooled down correctly it can be reused, and we take this very seriously,” says Cambra. “We could have someone in-house just to focus on leftover production.”

The Roger Williams philosophy is that everyone is a little bit responsible. From the food purchaser to the chefs to the students, each community member plays a role in conserving resources and limiting food waste. “It’s about how much we purchase, how much we produce and ultimately how much the students eat,” says the chef. 

Last fall Roger Williams initiated a waste campaign urging students though signs and marketing to, “Take what you want but eat what you take.” Daily collection of food scraps in the compost bins were displayed and weighed and when the student body lowered their food scrap totals they were rewarded with mac ’n’ cheese, everyone’s favorite. 

“We’re giving students some consumer insight so that when they leave here they will make good decisions,” says Hennessey.

Hennessey also leads the campus Dining Committee, which is made up of students and faculty who gather regularly to talk about issues relating to food and sustainability on campus. Their last meeting included professor Dale Levett, who teaches the university’s applied aquaculture farming course and often sets up a raw bar in the dining hall. 

n Northern Vermont, tiny Sterling College has been fighting food waste and integrating this learning into its land- and science-based curriculum for decades. Sterling’s size, (about 80 students on campus at once), and rural location (Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom) make the campus an ideal setting for a closed-loop dining operation. 

Sterling offers five majors: ecology, environmental humanities, outdoor education, sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems, all of which integrate fieldwork on the college farm, woodlot, kitchen and wild lands. The Sterling Farm currently grows and raises 25% of the school’s food and there is a robust linkage between farm and kitchen every day. What cannot be grown on the college farm is purchased first from local farmers, then organic distributors and lastly from conventional outlets. All food scraps are collected for compost that goes either to the soil or the pigs and everything is done in-house without the help of a food service operator. 

When Sterling students line up for a meal in the dining hall there is one option to choose from. Variations are available based on dietary needs but like the family dinner table, you can’t ask for something different. Every Sunday the whole college even indulges in “leftover night,” without question. Students here have come to college to solve our natural resource issues and are receptive to the idea that they are less likely to produce waste with limited options. Courses like Landscape Food and Culture, Value-Added Food Products, and Exploring Sustainable Agriculture and Food Policy integrate the learning that is happening in the dining hall with the learning happening on the farm and in the classroom.

“We are attempting to make a cultural shift teaching these things. Reducing choice and portion size, utilizing imperfect produce, canning and drying and trusting our senses over expiration dates are all part of it,” says Nicole Civita. 

Executive Chef Simeon Bittman is in constant contact with the Sterling farm manager as they talk about what’s coming out of the fields and what’s needed in the kitchen daily. In the off-season the two do a lot of planning, reviewing the year’s crop yields and menus and making adjustments for the following season. What Bittman found spending time in the Northeast Kingdom is that resourcefulness is ingrained into its rural community out of a tradition of necessity, and this is something he will take with him when he leaves Sterling. 

At the time of print Bittman had given his notice and was in search of a similar position in the Five College area surrounding Northampton, Massachusetts. He found that while Sterling may be the grandfather of sustainable college dining (ranked #1 in the country by Sierra Magazine), many others are not far behind in closing their food systems and designing supporting coursework. 

Each school’s approach to food waste is slightly different, coming at it from the angles of compost, hunger, resource management and cultural change. And while the efforts on a particular campus may be dominated by one approach, they each view food waste from a big-picture perspective. At the heart of this work, leaders at these colleges and universities recognize that food waste is a solvable problem and that they have a responsibility as institutions to set an example. Many of them are already going above and beyond the laws set in place and are showing that Yankee ingenuity is alive and well across New England. 

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