Mitigating Food Waste in University Dining Centers: a Synthesis for Policy-Makers Seeking Sustainability
Note: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.
This page was developed as a hypothetical report for the Big Ten Conference.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Consultants:
Jacob Bartelt, Political Science and German with a Certificate in Environmental Studies, Junior
Jordan Cummings, Agronomy, Genetics and Genomics, Sophomore
Lucas Chamberlain, PhD Student, Soil Science & Environment and Resources
The Big Ten Conference universities have tasked a sustainability consultant group with researching the causes and impacts of food waste on their campuses. This group of consultants is expected to review the scientific literature about food waste at university dining halls from around the world and draw conclusions about why food waste occurs and how it can be reduced. Additionally, the consultants are to create two surveys that will be sent to students and dining hall workers to gather information on, among other things, the perceived causes of food waste and where it happens the most. Using all the information they find from the literature review and surveys, the sustainability consultants will make a recommendation to the Big Ten universities on how to reduce food waste at dining centers.
Food waste occurs in the post-production stage of the food supply chain and describes the loss of edible food, which is thought to be largely preventable. Chronic food waste exacerbates inequities of food distribution and food security and negatively impacts the environmental and economic sustainability of our food systems. Prior research has focused on food waste at universities because they represent a microcosm of socioeconomic demographics; food waste accounts for the largest fraction of waste generated on campuses; the site of food waste is largely centralized and they may offer a variety of dining styles. Therefore, greater understanding of the dynamics of food waste at universities may serve as a proxy for wider consumer groups. To this end, we first synthesized the findings of qualitative and quantitative studies focused on predicting and preventing food waste at university dining centers. Next, we surveyed freshman students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and student employees of the Gordon Avenue Market dining center to gauge awareness and perceptions of the severity of food waste, respectively. The results of our literature review and surveys suggest that students and dining center employees are largely aware of their responsibility to curb food waste and that the majority of food waste may be driven by overproduction in the preparation stage. To be sure, institutions - like UW-Madison - that do not use all you care to eat dining styles and have composting infrastructure tend to already generate less food waste. Therefore, we offer the following recommendations to further prevent food waste: 1.) implement an educational program, Eat SMART, for students and dining center employees, which underscores the role of personal responsibility in generating less food waste; 2.) reduce overproduction of food in the preparation stage at dining centers; and 3.) expand the use of recovery strategies such as composting and donations to reduce the effects of overproduction.
Gordon Avenue Market. Source: housing.wisc.edu.
Food loss hurts people, their wallets, and the environment, and it can happen at any stage of the food supply chain. Food waste occurs after food is harvested or produced - in other words, edible food that is thrown away, goes bad before being served, or otherwise does not get consumed. We ask four research questions in our study. First, how is food waste measured at university dining centers? Second, what variables increase or decrease food waste? Third, what do students and dining center employees perceive the levels of food waste to be at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and what are the causes? Fourth, based on prior research and our own surveys, what steps can Big Ten universities take to reduce food waste at their dining centers?
University dining halls are a great place to study food waste because they are centralized, generate a large proportion of campus waste, and offer a variety of dining styles (e.g., all you care to eat (AYCTE) and à la carte) which can be compared. We hope that tackling food waste through the combined efforts of all 14 Big Ten universities, rather than at each individual institution, will produce better results, just as Big Ten cooperation has for other issues such as labor rights.
Food waste is avoidable and a product of the actions of dining hall employees and patrons. We assume that both of these groups are interested in reducing food waste to achieve greater social, economic and ecological sustainability of our food systems. We must provide the tools and recommendations these parties need to meet our goal of less food waste at university dining halls. Reviewing the literature on food waste reduction strategies and surveying dining center employees and patrons will help us find solutions for the Big Ten Conference.
Food waste is a global problem: Globally, an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food waste is generated per year with predicted increases of up to 44% by the year 2025 (Thi et al., 2015). Food waste within institutional food service sectors occurs at the final stage of the FSC and is driven by the behaviors of individuals, businesses and governments; therefore, it may be largely preventable (Cordingley et al., 2011; Buzby & Hyman, 2012; Wilke et al., 2015). This phenomenon not only deprives consumers of nutritional benefits but also incurs financial burdens to institutions and exacerbates resource losses in the form of embedded energy, transportation, storage and preparation as well as freshwater, arable land and fertilizer use (Kummu et al., 2011; ReFED, 2017; Conrad, 2020).
Hunger and starvation affect approximately 820 million people worldwide (FAO, 2019) with an estimated one billion people malnourished (Naylor, 2011). However, approximately one-third of edible food is lost post-harvest or post-production (Gustavsson et al., 2011), which accounts for an estimated 614kcal/ day (Kummu et al., 2012) or 124 kg/ year (273 lbs) (Buzby & Hyman, 2012). Countries with surplus food supplies are disproportionately responsible for the majority of food waste (Stuart, 2009). Prior research has estimated per capita food waste in Europe and North-America at 95–115 kg/ year while sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia account for only 6–11 kg/ year (Pinto et al., 2018). However, while one in eight Americans are food insecure (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2017), the majority of U.S. food waste occurs at this final consumer stage (43%) (ReFED, 2017).
Wasted Food. Source: bbc.com
Ecologic and economic impacts: Food waste also puts undue stress on food production systems with negative environmental consequences. An estimated 3.3 billion tons of CO 2 per year are generated in the production of wasted food (FAO, 2013). Additionally, production of wasted food accounts for 24% of total freshwater used in agricultural production, 23% of total global cropland area, and 23% of total global fertilizer use (Kummu et al., 2012).
In addition to the adverse effects to human health and the environmental sustainability, food waste also has negative economic impacts. Researchers have shown that Americans spend an average of $13.27 per day on food - of which 27% is wasted - or about $1.07 per day (Buzby & Hyman, 2012; Conrad, 2020). Estimates of the cost of food waste to American consumers have been estimated to be $390 per person/ year or a national total of $165.6 billion/ year (Buzby & Hyman, 2012). Here, we see a need to quantify and prevent food waste in institutional settings, such as schools, to curb the negative social, economic and environmental effects of food waste.
Why should we care about food waste at universities? University dining facilities have been the focus of many studies on preventable food waste because they are largely centralized, feed students from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, generate large amounts of food waste and offer a gradient of different dining styles (WSP & Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2015; Wilke et al., 2015; Conrad, 2020). Universities may also prove to be ideal locations to study knowledge transmission and behavioral changes as students represent a subsample of newly independent and impressionable subjects. If so, learned behavior and knowledge, which curbs food waste may be carried into the future and further disseminated. Furthermore, the societal responsibility of universities to minimize the impacts of food waste has been previously outlined (Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008) and it is, in fact, mandatory for colleges and universities in the United States to adopt waste reduction strategies (Armijo de Vega et al., 2008). For example, Rutgers University and Brown University have programs to reallocate food waste for pig and goat feed (UF Sustainability Task Force, 2002) while Ithaca College and Appalachian State University both use composting systems to recycle several tons of food waste per year (Armijo de Vega et al., 2008). From this, we see that university dining centers may prove to be valuable sites of research into food waste drivers and mitigation strategies.
We asked two main research questions:
1. How is food waste measured at university dining centers?
2. What variables drive or curb food waste at the consumer level?
Qualitative studies measure food waste by categories such as food groups (e.g. meat, vegetables, dairy) and consumer attributes (e.g. male vs. female, socioeconomic characteristics, dining habits, cultural traditions or geography). In other words, researchers seek to answer the questions, “who is wasting food and what kind of food is being wasted?”. First, we found that efforts to categorize food waste by student demographics may offer conflicting results. For example, measurements from universities in Qatar and China found that female students created significantly more food waste than males (Abdelaal et al., 2019; Qian et al., 2021). On the other hand, a study at Stellenbosch University (Western Cape, South Africa) found that males produced more food waste than females (Marais et al., 2017). The same Chinese study also showed that food waste varied significantly by region (North vs. South) and was positively correlated with students who have greater socioeconomic status (Qian et al., 2021).
While student demographics may be less predictive of food waste potential, we also looked to studies that measure wasted food by categories. For example, a three month study at the University of Missouri found that the greatest source of food waste by weight was derived from “fruits and vegetables” followed by “grains” (Costello et al. 2015). On the other hand, a study performed at Western Michigan University found that “carbohydrates/ leftovers”, such as breads, potatoes and deserts, represented ⅔ more food waste than “animal products” or “organic materials” (Merrow et al., 2012). Next, the previously cited South African study found that the most wasted food groups by male students were “vegetables and salad” while female students wasted more “deserts” and “starches” (Marais et al., 2017). Interestingly, a multi-campus study, which expected staple foods to be the most wasted, found that no food group accounted for significantly more or less of waste generated (Wiriyaphanich et al., 2012).
Finally, several studies have cited satisfaction with food taste as a limiting factor to generating food waste (Qian et al., 2021; Wiriyaphanich et al., 2012), but additional sampling across more universities is needed to determine whether or not this may reliably prevent food waste. Additionally, researchers from Stellenbosch University observed temporal variations in the amount of food waste generated at dining centers with greater waste occurring during lunch than dinner (Marais et al., 2017). We did not find similar observations of temporal variations in food waste, but recommend this approach for further studies.From this, we see that the results of quantitative investigations of food waste appear to differ across studies and may be less useful to predict trends in food waste.
Figure 1. Source: oswegonian.com
Quantitative studies measure food waste with metrics such as weight (amount wasted), kcal (nutritional energy), monetary value or embodied energy (resource loss). For example, at the University of Missouri, approximately 40.3 tons (16.3%) of edible food was wasted over the course of three months with an estimated embodied GHG total of 67.2 tons (Costello et al., 2015). Additionally, researchers found that the use of trays at an AYCTE dining center at Virginia Tech University generated 5829 lbs of edible waste in one week, significantly more than without trays (Sarjahani et al., 2009). Similarly, the production of food waste was shown to decrease 32% when trays were unavailable in a 6-day study at an unnamed university (Kim & Morawski, 2012). Finally, a 6-week study of 540 students measured the amount of food wasted from trays in an AYCTE dining style. They found an average of 57g of edible food was wasted per tray, which created more than 1.5 tons of food waste in total (Whitehair et al., 2015). From our literature review, we suggest quantitative studies may be better equipped to describe causality and correlative relationships between food waste and predictors such as dining style or use of trays.
So... how do we reduce food waste? Using the results from prior research, we now offer the following recommendations to curb food waste in university dining centers. First, an educational campaign was shown to modestly - though not significantly - decrease food waste among students at an Illinois university (Ellison et al., 2019). The authors also reported improvements to student’s beliefs that individuals could impact food waste following the campaign. Educational programming was also shown to reduce food waste among Chinese students (Qian et al., 2021) and “simple to-the-point prompt-type messages” were also deemed effective in reducing food waste in university dining centers (Whitehair et al., 2013). In Portugal, food waste education was offered both to students and dining center workers, which was shown to reduce food waste (Pinto et al., 2018). This included informational signage in the dining hall that encouraged students to reduce food waste and order only as much food as they could eat as well as teaching dining center employees to offer different portion sizes. Similarly, awareness of food waste as well as pre-existing habits and norms among students have shown to reduce the amount of food waste generated (Bell & Ulhas, 2020).
Second, several studies found that a substantial fraction of food waste generated in university dining centers occurs in the food preparation stage, such as vegetable peelings and fat cut from meat (Armijo de Vega et al., 2008; Abdelaal et al., 2019). While waste generated in the food preparation stage is considered largely ‘unavoidable’, researchers suggest overproduction of food to be the root cause. The overproduction of food to support AYCTE dining styles with trays were also highlighted as a significant contributing factor to food waste (Costello et al, 2015; Marais et al., 2017). Additionally, a study performed at an unnamed Big Ten university found that switching to a trayless system decreased plate waste by 0.81 oz per patron (Thiagarajah & Getty, 2013). Similarly, researchers investigating the effect of plate shape and size on food waste found that students who used smaller plates wasted significantly less food than the larger plates (Richardson et al., 2021).
Taken as a whole, our literature review first offers evidence of chronic food waste occurring within the institutional food service sector as a threat to the ecologic and economic sustainability of food systems as well as food security. Next, we synthesized current scientific research to illustrate the myriad of qualitative and quantitative metrics by which food waste can be measured. From there, we were able to highlight some of the drivers and mitigating factors of food waste revealed by prior research. To mitigate food waste, university dining centers could implement educational programs, which underscore personal responsibility, and replace trays with smaller plates. Finally, overproduction of food in the preparation stage to support AYCTE dining styles can be reduced or recovered through the expansion of composting or donations to food pantries.
Many studies in our literature review do not offer both qualitative and quantitative measurements of food waste. Therefore it is difficult to identify drivers of food waste production that apply at a large scale. This may be due to the fact that many universities utilize different dining styles. For example, some studies have described dining centers being available for several meals a day to both male and female students (Ellison et al., 2019; Richardson et al., 2021) while others only serve food a few days a week and keep meals separate between the sexes (Abdelaal et al., 2019; Qian et al., 2021). Additionally, methodological approaches differ greatly among studies and there is yet to be a formalized process by which food waste studies are conducted. This makes drawing conclusions and offering broad recommendations difficult. The time and labor requirements of monitoring a large number of students also makes individual behavior shifts difficult to assess. More often, studies must aggregate data and look at the big picture, which means context and details are lost. Future contributions to this body of research may include performing long-term, holistic study of food waste production (qualitative and quantitative) at a university. Additionally, a meta-analysis of current research to identify commonly studied variables may help build towards a more cohesive body of research for policy-makers and stakeholders.
We conducted two separate surveys to examine food waste within the University of Wisconsin-Madison dining centers. We first surveyed University of Wisconsin-Madison freshmen to gain insight into student awareness and perceptions of their own food waste. The voluntary, nine-question survey was posted on the UW-Madison class of 2024 Facebook page and responses were restricted to the UW-Madison G suite email addresses to ensure all participants were affiliated with the University. We received 29 responses; 79.3% indicated that they eat at a university dining hall at least once a day. 17.2% of students said they throw away their uneaten food at dining halls and 51.7% stated that they often consume all the food they buy (Figure 1). When asked why they throw away uneaten food, 72.4% of students stated that it was because the food did not taste good. 58.6% said it had an ingredient that they did not like, and 31% said portions that were too big. When asked how interested they were in learning more about food waste on a scale of 0 to 5, the results followed a normal distribution centered around 3 (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Student food waste from the student's perspective.
Figure 3: Student interest in learning more about food waste reduction.
We also surveyed student employees of Gordon Avenue Market (GAM) on their perception of food waste. The survey was delivered via email by the head student supervisor at Gordon Avenue Market. This voluntary six-question survey received 36 responses. When asked to rate the severity of food waste at GAM, 75% of employees indicated a 4 or higher on a scale of 0 to 5 (Figure 5). Student employees also estimated that 23.51% of uneaten food at GAM is thrown away. Although 41.7% of the respondents couldn’t identify a single station as the largest contributor to food waste, 33.3% indicated that station 1849 produced the most (Figure 3). 66.7% of respondents stated that the primary reason for food waste at Gordon was overproduction. 8.3% of respondents stated that students throwing unwanted food to be the biggest cause of food waste (Figure 4). The optional question at the end of the survey allowed employees to include any recommendations they had for food waste reduction.
Figure 4: Gordon station that generates the most waste according to student employees.
Figure 5: Employee perspective on drivers of food waste at Gordon.
Figure 6: Significance of the food waste problem at Gordon Avenue Market according to student employees.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Fig. 7: Progression of Food Production and Recovery Techniques
Results from both student and GAM employee surveys suggest that overproduction may be the leading cause of food waste at UW-Madison dining centers. Additionally, measures UW-Madison has already implemented to reduce food waste, such as à la carte with smaller servings, may explain lower perceptions of post-consumer waste. While these techniques may lower food waste by limiting the amount of food a student takes, they shift the source of food waste to the production side.
Student employees offered numerous suggestions to reduce or recover food waste. Employees prescribed greater consumer awareness of the composter system used at GAM to prevent compostable food from being discarded. Other students suggested small-batch cooking or cooking specialty items to order. Other proposed strategies to reduce or recover food waste were: discounted meals at the end of lunch or dinner times and the use of recovery methods like donation and frozen meal packaging to food pantries. Overall, our findings suggest that UW-Madison students and GAM employees recognize food waste as a problem and are interested in reducing overproduction and implementing recovery techniques.
The next step for universities that have already implemented dining styles that promote less waste, such as à la carte, and are utilizing food reduction and recovery techniques, is targeted food waste reduction. Opening a line of communication for concerns and recommendations may allow students and employees to further mitigate campus food waste. University dining centers should also raise student awareness of food recovery methods that may already be in place, such as composting. Many of our survey respondents described implementing practices that the university already uses. Transparency with the composting process and food recovery networks allows students to get involved with food waste reduction.
The UW-Madison Compost Journey: We recommend using educational tools like this to raise student awareness of food waste reduction strategies. Our team proposes creating an educational program that ties in the suggestions above so that students and dining center employees are aware of the ways they can reduce food waste. The program is titled Eat SMART, or Eat Sustainable Meals and Reduce Trash. Our research shows one of the best ways to reduce food waste is simply making more students and employees aware of what is already being done. Big Ten universities could easily implement Eat SMART without having to purchase expensive equipment, such as composters, although such equipment will help reduce food waste in the long run as well.
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This project would not have been successful without the contributions of the outstanding students in our Food Production Systems and Sustainability class. We would particularly like to acknowledge the wonderful and challenging questions, and the specific knowledge that students with different areas of expertise provided.
About the Authors
Jacob Bartelt is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Political Science and German. Upon graduation, he would like to pursue a career either in foreign affairs or in sustainable urban planning.
Lucas Chamberlain is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying soil ecology and a research assistant in the Freedman Lab for Environmental Microbial Ecology and Sustainability.
Jordan Cummings is a second year undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Agronomy; Genetics and Genomics. Her plans after graduation are to work on crossbreeding of crops and genetic engineering of plants.