Dining halls are a staple of every college student’s experience, with unlimited food and various options. However, for most campuses, there’s a negative effect of dining halls: waste.
Food waste is a pressing global issue, and one area where it is most prevalent is on college campuses throughout the country. Students pay for a meal plan and have to know when to use their meal swipes.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus has seen its population grow slowly, with a current student population of 25,332 — one of the highest in school history. This increase in students also calls for an increase in food for the university to provide.
The dining halls at UNL rely on meal plan purchases every year to operate and provide enough food for students. Meal plans are used to purchase food and drinks at several locations around campus, which presents the first issue of food waste.
Food waste begins on farms and other production centers where the school buys its food and drink supply. CBORD is a software that allows the dining halls to track food purchase orders, make future food purchases and determine how much food is used.
“With CBORD, we forecast for every meal and it tells us what to start with,” Abel Dining Center manager Marilyn McCalla said.
The program was created in 1975 and has proven to still be as reliable as ever. The software helps to set up batch cooking, which allows Abel Dining Center to run and control how much food is cooked at once.
This also plays a factor in the menu-making process each day. The menus are on a five-week cycle, yet require careful attention to the trends within the dining hall.
“You use your history and some of it’s a guess. Sometimes kids will eat the heck out of it this time, and the next time they don’t,” Cather Dining Center manager Joel Fogerty said. “It’s a guessing game.”
The uncertainty requires extra attention by the cooks as well. The cooks play a key role in determining what foods should stay and which should go. That responsibility starts with the cook noting how many servings are taken.
“We have production sheets, and it’s also a temperature summary sheet that every day they’re expected to fill that out,” Abel Dining Center production manager Lindy Sites said.
These steps are all part of reducing food waste before the food is served. The rest of the process is figuring out how to reduce food waste after students fill their plates in the dining halls.
Six years ago, the university removed trays from the dining halls. According to McCalla, this has been the biggest change in reducing food waste on campus. Although going trayless was a step in the right direction and has led to smaller plates and bowls, students continue to put more food than they can eat on their plates.
At all dining halls, post-consumer food waste is on the wash line and runs through a machine called a pulper that breaks down all the waste, according to McCalla. The remains are then sent to the landfill.
Composting has become more popular in recent years, but has not been fully implemented on campus, Fogerty said. The little amount of composting that does happen at UNL is not through student food waste, but waste from preparing the food.
“We compost coffee grounds, any produce waste as we’re cleaning the produce and egg shells,” Selleck Dining Center manager Gina Guernsey said.
According to Guernsey, the compost is then shipped off to EcoHuskers, a sustainability program on campus. The rules are more strict for composting, Fogerty said, as plastic can not be present and the process is more expensive.
According to Sites and Abel Dining Center production manager Sharity Czolgos, all types of food can be reused only once in the dining halls and after that, the food is trashed or donated through FoodNet.
FoodNet is a local organization that donates food to various food banks and other services in the Lincoln area. According to Sites, this is something that does not happen often at Nebraska because donating takes place over longer breaks such as Thanksgiving vacation.
“I know there’s other food banks and the [Open Door] Mission, but we’re only allowed to do FoodNet,” Sites said.
Despite some limitations, there are plans in the near future to both spread awareness of food waste and reduce the amount of food at UNL that is thrown away.
In November 2019, a new machine was implemented in Selleck Dining Center called the Biodigestor, which converts food waste to grey water. That water is then transported to the sewage systems and eventually recycled.
The process requires Selleck staff to be cautious because non-food types, such as napkins and plastics, can’t enter the machine because they will not be broken down properly.
“This [process] is done with an enzyme that is similar to what you would have in your stomach,” Guernsey said. “What it’s going to do is it’s going to take all the student waste … and it’s going to break it down to a grey water and go down the drain.”
Another new technology being implemented is Leanpath, a tool used to measure all food waste that a dining hall produces. The software can even be broken down into times of day and will serve two main purposes for the school. Nebraska currently does not hold any data on how much food waste there is each year, but that will change with this software.
Each dining hall would get an accurate number of the amount of food waste created instead of estimating the amount based on cooking numbers and leftovers. The second purpose is to display the amount of food waste in front of dining hall entrances and inside.
“It just makes you conform to the program,” Dining Services director Dave Annis said. “If you follow the process, it will give you great analytical information that you can analyze and look at what you’re doing well and where you need some improvement.”
The display is a visible change, but there will also be changes in meal plans. According to Annis, one of the meal plans next year can be used to buy $8 worth of items at Herbie’s Market. Another change is to add dining dollars, which aim to make meal plans more flexible as they allow purchases at C-Stores or, potentially, at restaurants.
More flexibility of the meal plan would allow for the reduction of food waste. For Annis, it would also bring something to the university that it did not have before.
“College dining has changed very, very quickly and continues to change quickly, and I don’t think we here had been keeping up with the changes,” Annis said. “We were a little bit behind the curve of what’s going on in contemporary college dining.”
This article was originally published in the January 2020 special edition of The DN.