It’s 6:30 p.m. Students start filing into Carmichael and Dewick-MacPhie Dining Centers, and the dining staff swipe each Tufts ID through the register. Students grab a plate and pile on protein, carbs, vegetables, legumes, grains and fats, and raid the tables in packs. By 8:00 p.m. when the dining halls prepare to close for the night, the waste conveyor belt is stacked with piles of unfinished, salvageable food.
In order to manage the excess food that comes through the disposal system, Tufts Dining Services relies on Food For Free, a nonprofit that distributes rescued packaged meals and bagged food to communities and individuals in need. Teamed up with Food For Free is Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative (TFRC), a group of student volunteers who prepare the packaged rescue meals. Senior Marissa Donohue facilitates the communication between TFRC, Food For Free and Tufts Dining. According to Donohue, TFRC has seen greater involvement from students and has been successful in their partnership with Food For Free. However, Donohue described the number of packaged meals as having increased compared to last semester. “The ultimate goal is less food waste,” Donohue said.
Donohue was inspired to join TFRC through a “Waste Less Dinner” in her sophomore year. At this event, total food waste from Carmichael and Dewick is weighed and the average waste per person is calculated. In 2017–2018, the average waste per person more than doubled between the “Waste Less Dinners” of October and April, from 1.5 ounces to 3.16 ounces per person, or from a total of 56 pounds to 90 pounds of total food waste. “You don’t think 3.16 ounces is a lot,” John Beaulac, associate director of residential dining, said. “But in a typical meal period, let’s say you multiply that by 1,700 people. It adds up.” And according to a 2015 report by the Food Recovery Network, college campuses as a whole produce 22 million pounds in food waste a year.
Donohue mentioned that a lot of the food packaging for TFRC is “behind-the-scenes.” Students are not witnessing how much food waste is piling up in the dining hall kitchens and how much of that might be their own unfinished meals. Donohue believes Tufts is doing a good job of acknowledging this, but mentions that its effort is “variable.”
However, reducing food waste is a hard issue for Tufts Dining Services to advocate. “The general public does not understand what a correct portion is and how much food you actually need,” Beaulac said. “Students pile food onto their plate, which is actually about four, five or six servings.” Beaulac added that students’ food consumption is entirely a personal choice and noted that the goal with events like “Waste Less Dinner” and “Scrape Your Plate” is not to shame people, but rather to educate them on responsible dining.
Perhaps there are ways for students and Tufts Dining Services to collaborate further on encouraging people to reduce their food waste. For one, Donohue hopes that Tufts can “form a platform where people can talk about interesting advances in food rescue.” Stationing Eco-Reps at the conveyor belts during prime eating hours and not just at special events could deter some food waste. In addition to placing the appropriate portion size of food offerings in the dining halls, putting up food waste statistics near the conveyor belt and on the tables in the dining halls could also increase the student body’s general awareness of this issue. Finally, food rescue is really important not only in reducing waste, but also allocating that waste to the people who need it most. Leftover food and produce, beyond being donated to homeless shelters, could also be distributed to members of the Tufts community, students or staff.
But, ultimately, in order to reduce food waste, students need to gauge how much food on their plates they will actually eat and not waste. As Beaulac stated, it “doesn’t take a lot” to project how much food one will realistically eat in order to reduce one’s waste. So, ask yourself the next time you walk into a dining hall: What can I do to address food waste?