Students Take a Small Bite Into Sustainability, Worker Appreciation

by Ben Weintraub, Contributing Writer, and Morissa Zuckerman, Staff Writer

Courtesy of Morissa
Courtesy of Morissa Zuckerman

Every year, getting food onto Americans’ plates uses 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, 50 percent of its land, and 80 percent of the fresh water consumed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This is a huge percentage of our nation’s resources, and yet 40 percent of all this food – the equivalent of $165 billion – goes to waste every year.

Pitzer College plays a role in these numbers. College campuses, with their all-you-can-eat, buffet-style dining halls and uncertainty about the number of students they will be serving at any given meal, produce a proportionately higher percentage of food waste than the average individual or family.

But exactly how much of Pitzer’s food goes to waste? What happens to it after it is thrown out, and what can be done to try to reduce our impact?

The Slow Food club set out to answer these questions, and created a “Take What You Can Eat” campaign to find out more and to raise awareness about what is happening in the Pitzer dining hall. Every lunch from February 10th to 13th, volunteers stood at a table in front of the conveyer belt and collected peoples’ leftover food scraps. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and napkins went into a compost bucket while meat, dairy, and other non-compostable items were put aside as waste. Napkins, wax paper, and non-food items were included to illustrate a more comprehensive calculation of the waste produced from our meals. The volunteers recorded how many of the 5-gallon buckets they filled during each lunch, as well as the number of people who came into the dining hall to eat.

Here are the results:

Monday 753 people 7 buckets 35 gallons
Tuesday 778 people 7.5 buckets 37.5 gallons
Wednesday 906 people 10 buckets 50 gallons
Thursday 911 people 8.5 buckets 42.5 gallons
TOTAL 3,348 people 33 buckets 165 gallons

These numbers were actually lower than what the Slow Food club was expecting, especially for Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. These three days showed about the same ratio of food waste per person, with slightly less on Pasta Bar Thursday. However, Wednesday’s Salad Bowl stuck out as the biggest day of waste generation, likely due to the very large portion sizes.

Many people seemed to welcome the Take What You Can Eat campaign, and appreciated that something was being done to try to get Pitzer to compost its waste. Others voiced concern that the composting created longer lines for people trying to put their finished plates away. In another discussion on Student Talk, some people raised the issue about the possibility of students feeling pressured to eat more than they wanted to since they knew that their food waste would be measured. Emily Kleeman (Pitzer ’14) said that she wasn’t totally against the campaign, but “had conversations today with people who had food left on their plates and felt pressured to eat it even though they weren’t hungry, simply because they were embarrassed or didn’t want to have to deal with the people with the buckets.”

Amanda Chang (Pitzer ’16) said that at first she had similar concerns. However, she hopes that “as this campaign goes on, people will start to be more conscientious of what they put on their plate. So instead of getting a huge plate of food to start with, you can get some and go back for seconds if you want more.” Taking less is a habit that takes time to develop, and can be slightly uncomfortable at first.

This campaign showed that wasting less food directly helps the dining hall workers. Taking less food means that kitchen workers can do less frantic cutting, cooking and grilling of food that often ends up thrown away. Dining hall manager Dennis Lofland urges students to ask for less food if they want less, particularly at Salad Bowl on Wednesdays. Some students, such as Somer Drummond (Pitzer ’14), have experienced that in the rush to get people served it is difficult to convey to staff members how much food she wants, especially if it is less than what other people want. Dennis recently reminded staff to listen to student’s portion requests, which, combined with increased student awareness, should help create better communication.

Another way that “Take What You Can Eat” highlights the connections between staff appreciation and food waste is that clearing plates before they go through the conveyer belt waves the staff both time and the unpleasantness of dealing with old food in green boxes. Alora Daunt (Pitzer ’17), a member of the club, says, “The very first piece of waste that we put into our buckets was from an old green box. The smell was so intolerable we had to immediately find a lid to cover the bucket.” The dining hall staff, however, faces green boxes with moldy vegetables, spoiled bread and ant-infested cereal every day.

Showing appreciation for the hard work that the staff does for students was one of the goals of the campaign. Members of the Claremont Student Workers Alliance collected messages for the dining hall staff on a large poster next to the compost buckets, where students could wish them a happy Valentine’s Day and say thank you. Wasting less food is a direct action that students can take to help the workers, as well as reduce environmental impact.

Four days collecting food waste in the dining hall is not necessarily going to change people’s habits, so Slow Food plans on putting up some permanent signs and collecting compost and waste intermittently throughout the year. In addition, as of February 19th, kitchen scraps will be composted at Huerta De Valle community garden in Ontario. It is still unknown to the student body how much edible food is thrown out from the kitchen, which is an equal or perhaps greater contributor to dining hall waste. Some students including Chelsea McMahan (Pitzer, ’14) are investigating donating leftovers from the dining hall to a nearby homeless shelter.

Through this campaign, the Slow Food club hopes to raise awareness, start a dialogue, and facilitate a lasting and meaningful discussion about food on our campus. With conscious efforts to have students only take what they can eat, the amount of food left on plates can be reduced. This, combined with composting scraps from the kitchen, has the ability to make a substantial dent in Pitzer’s waste.

Courtesy of Morissa Zuckerman
Courtesy of Morissa Zuckerman

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