Tipping the Scales: Lessons from Monday’s Weigh the Waste Event

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When you think of a typical American meal, you might think of fattening entrées, supersized portions and frequent overeating. However, there is another characteristic that often goes unnoticed–the amount of food that gets thrown away after each meal. In fact, the each American wastes about one pound of food per day, just under the size of an average meal. This might not sound like much, but when this waste is scaled up to the size of the American population, the effects are huge. Each day, Americans throw away enough food to fill the Rose Bowl, leading to 33.79 million tons of food waste per year, or about $165 billion of unused food. Besides making up the largest portion of already-overflowing municipal landfills, our yearly food waste has other profound environmental impacts–it costs us 25% of all of our freshwater usage and 300 million barrels of oil.

At a school where dining halls are all-you-can-eat, food waste is extremely prevalent and an issue students and staff should be working together to fix. Northwestern Dining hopes to raise awareness about this issue and encourage students to be mindful of the food they throw away after each meal. In order to do so, we hosted an event called Weigh the Waste at Allison and Sargent, where students were asked to bypass the usual plate collection procedure and instead put their post-meal waste into containers for each type of waste–food, liquid, paper and non-compostable. At the end of the event, Northwestern Dining event staff and student volunteers weighed each of the containers to see just how much Sargent and Allison’s diners wasted during their meal.

The results were not surprising–diners wasted a decent amount of food. At Sargent, 271 diners produced 71 pounds of waste, for an average of .26 pounds/diner. At Allison, 234 diners produced 71.5 pounds of food per, for an average of .31 pounds/diner. By multiplying these numbers by 3 (for each meal of the day), it can be inferred that Northwestern diners produce just under the national average amount of meal waste per day.

It’s important to note that Northwestern Dining does compost food waste and works with Campus Kitchens to provide leftover meals to those in need. However, focusing on diners’ post-meal waste can help save water, energy and money in the kitchen by helping chefs determine the most efficient amount of food to produce. There are several tips diners can follow in the dining halls to reduce their waste. The most obvious tip is aiming to take only what you know what you will eat—but that is often easier said than done. Diners can also take sample portions to try something to make sure they like it before taking full servings, or split large sandwiches and desserts with friends. Simply taking smaller portions to begin with is a great option, because you can always go back for seconds if you are still hungry! Just be sure you give yourself some time before going for seconds, because it takes time for your body to realize you’re full.

Northwestern Dining hopes that you will keep these facts and waste-reduction tips in mind the next time you eat in the dining halls! We will be holding another Weigh the Waste event in Sargent and Allison in November to see just how well diners are doing!

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