Student Campaign Assesses Food Waste

By CECELIA SCHEUER

There’s something about dumping leftover food on dining hall carousels and watching it slide out of sight that just makes it seem to disappear. A new student-led initiative, sponsored by the SGA Environmental Affairs Committee, is trying to change that by assessing and publicizing data about quantities of food waste that students left behind in Proctor Dining Hall last week. From Monday through Friday, Middlebury dining staff weighed all uneaten food at the end of each lunch period and reported the results back to students Ryan Guttheil ’22 and Jiaqi Li ’22, the forces behind this year’s Weigh the Waste campaign.

The project, sponsored by SGA’s Environmental Affairs Committee, originally started in 2013 by Cailey Cron ’13.5 and Molly Shane ’13.5, is part of a broader effort in cooperation with dining to increase student awareness of food waste. According to an article published by The Campus in 2013, the college was reporting approximately 300 tons of food waste annually, but did not produce data on how much came from students who still had uneaten food on their plates. In the first collection, the campaign found nearly 140 pounds of edible waste in Proctor Dining and 160 pounds in Ross.

Guttheil first proposed a revival of the campaign to Head of Dining Operations, Dan Detora, in Winter Term, after growing tired of seeing students who simply “weren’t hungry anymore” continue to throw away uneaten food.

“Food waste has always been something that bothered me because it is so avoidable,” Guttheil said.

Detora, who agreed to handle logistics, left the design of the campaign primarily up to Guttheil and Li. They then emailed Head of Proctor Dan Boise to devise a way in which to make excess food waste more visible to the student body. 

To better discern how much edible waste students are responsible for, they agreed to weigh all excess food coming into the conveyor belt at the end of each lunch period, beginning on Monday, April 15. On the first day, they reported a total of 106 pounds of waste. Before dining staff weighed the waste on a scale, they put it through a pulper to extract excess water and break the components down to prepare the waste for composting.

While composting has promising environmental benefits of its own, composted materials still release greenhouse gases as they decompose. And the campaign organizers believe holding consumers responsible for their actions may better address the underlying causes of food waste, while composting might only ameliorate its environmental consequences after the fact.

 “Even though we compost, it’s a matter of not wasting the resources that have been put into making the food,” Guttheil said. “It took a lot of water, a lot of sun energy and a lot of time energy for that food to be made only for it to go to waste.”

Guttheil, Li and Detora discussed the manner in which to best increase visibility of student-generated waste at length. While the previous Weigh the Waste campaign put clear plastic buckets on display into which students dumped their waste, Guttheil said that Detora wanted this campaign to cultivate awareness of the community’s contributions, rather than to “waste-shame” individual students. 

Results showed a gradual decrease in the amount of excess food waste as the week progressed. Tuesday’s data reported 119.5 pounds of waste, Wednesday saw 102 pounds, Thursday saw 92.5 pounds and Friday saw 63 pounds. It is unclear, however, how much of this decline can be attributed to student initiative, as Guttheil pointed out that dining was processing a lot more volume than usual that week due to the influx of prospective students during Preview Days.

“We would have liked the numbers to go down in a way that was more clear,” Guttheil said. “Unfortunately, there was not as much of a behavioral change as we had hoped, but the goal was mainly to bring awareness to the issue.”

To balance out the quantitative weight of the campaign, members of the Environmental Affairs Committee and the Green New Deal Town Hall tabled outside Proctor all week to discuss the results and their potential implications. After each day, Guttheil printed signs of the results to hang outside Proctor to encourage students to aim for better results the next day. 

Gutheil said that even slight changes to our eating habits, such as “taking less food on your first trip in, or making sure that you are actually going to eat what you take,” could have substantial economic, environmental and community benefits. For next year’s Weigh the Waste campaign, Li and Guttheil hope to implement a sort of friendly “competition” between Proctor and Ross to increase incentive.

The results of this year’s project can be accessed in more detail at go/weighthewaste.