Auditing Food Waste at Ohio University

NWF   |   March 19, 2008

CafeteriaPart of what makes campuses so energy-intensive is the fact that a lot more goes on than classes. Many students reside in dorms, which means they spend the majority of their day working, eating, studying, playing and sleeping on campus. Faculty and administrators (as well as off-campus students) often work long hours, and use university resources like cafeterias or bookstores before commuting home at the end of the day. Colleges must provide all kinds of amenities to their populations, and today we want to focus on a big one: the food.

While some campuses are small enough to source all their food locally, or even grow it on campus (like the organic, vegetarian meals provided by Maharishi University), for most this is impossible or unfeasible. Ohio University recently took a different approach by conducting an audit of wasted cafeteria food. This easily-measured study took place over four days in January and February, and averaged the amount of waste by dividing the amount of edible food thrown away (not including scraps like banana peels or bones) by the number of people who dined during the day.

What did the results show? On average, 5.4 ounces of edible food were thrown away per person.  On January 21st, when 248 pounds of waste were discarded by the 756 people who were served, 330 additional people could have been fed.

The University’s Office of Sustainability, which conducted the study, decided to test for a few more variables. On the third audit, February 4th, all trays were removed from the cafeteria. Students could still eat as much as they wanted, but had to make more trips to load up their plates. The amount of food wasted dropped to 4.5 ounces per person. On the final audit day, February 18th, signs and charts displaying the results of the first three tests were scattered around the cafeteria in the hope that they might provoke a further decrease in food waste, even though trays were once again available. An average of 5.56 ounces per person was discarded.

What we find most interesting is the fact that education seemed to have a significantly smaller impact than the removal of the dining trays. Given the immense amount of energy  (and the financial cost to diners and the university) that goes into producing, packaging, transporting and preparing food, small changes in eating habits can make big differences in efficiency, without requiring that students give up any of that much-needed brain food!

What do you think? Should the trays be removed entirely? Or is it better to step up educational efforts and expect diners to monitor themselves? Has your campus done similar audits or had success with other strategies for managing food?

Photo credit to Flickr Suviko

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Published: March 19, 2008