Chew on this: The problem with food waste


By Kaanan Raja

Flashback to freshman year at the University: The 11 by 11 square foot room that was “home sweet home,” stumbling out of the smaller-than-average shower stalls and my favorite memory of all, the long-winding stir fry line at the PAR dining hall.

Most of us either have mixed reactions to our college dorm food. While some may shudder at the thought of the “breakfast for dinner” we would sometimes endure, others may have found the University’s multitude of options surprising. Either way, at each meal, our plates would be stacked with mountains of food — even if we knew we weren’t going to finish all of it.

Despite what some naysayers may say about the dining system, the University deserves the recognition it has recently been given. The University was listed in the top 12 sustainable college campuses in the US in a list from The Christian Science Monitor.

As the 10th spot on the list, the campus’s description read, “The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spends 25 percent of its yearly food budget on locally grown or processed food items. Campus dining services also exclusively serve fair trade coffee and almost all seafood is sustainably harvested. The University is also very committed to reducing waste and has enacted efforts to recycle cooking oil for biodiesel production and currently a quarter of the meals served on-campus are trayless.”

Up until now, I had no idea how environmentally-driven the campus dining system truly was.

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The locally grown food mentioned is all produced at the Sustainable Student Farm, a production farm that supplies 95 percent of all of its produce to the University’s residence halls with locally grown, low-input sustainable food.

With all the environmentally-friendly ways the campus is saving energy, buying local ingredients, composting waste and catering to vegetarians like myself, one would think the students of this campus would be equally as passionate about the environmental impact we also have.

However, one look at the conveyor belts of our dining halls can simply prove how unaware and apathetic many of us are about the food waste and water usage we’re constantly leaving behind. It’s incredibly hard not to notice the mountains of un-sipped drinks, barely nibbled fruit and still beautifully decorated desserts that meet their demise on the return conveyor belt.

So many of us take advantage of the all-you-can-eat policy that all of our dining halls employ. However, while we’re piling on every type of food from the a la carte menu provided to us, we don’t seem to realize how much food we end up throwing away.

I know that as a freshman, I definitely felt entitled to take more than I could eat, especially so I could get my money’s worth. However, taking advantage of a meal plan and wasting food are not the same thing.

Food waste is not just a problem here on our campus — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted. Instead of making its way into our mouths, when we waste food, we are throwing it in our landfills instead. In fact, over 33 million tons of food makes its way to landfills each year. When such food is disposed in landfills, it rots and becomes a significant source of methane — a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Reducing the amount of food that makes its way to these landfills would be extremely environmentally beneficial.

Food waste not only has environmental repercussions but social ones as well. As the University dining services take part in the EPA Food Recovery Challenge, LeanPath, Zero Percent and other waste-reduction programs that donate leftover food from our dining halls. According to the Recovery Challenge website, “Participants agree to reduce, donate, and/or compost wasted food, and to set annual waste diversion goals.” This ensures that the food that is not eaten by university students can instead be donated to homeless shelters and other organizations.

The Champaign county is very familiar with its ever-present homeless population. Many of us can see the issue from our very own Green Street. On January of 2014, a survey of the county’s homeless population was conducted and found that 222 people in 176 household emergency centers were homeless.

While many of us simply toss our unpeeled bananas and untouched sandwiches into the garbage can without a second thought, with programs such as the ones our dining halls provide, we don’t seem to realize how this untouched food could have been preserved and left at donations within our own very campus, which would also help the environment.

Kaanan is a sophomore in LAS.

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