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Waste Not, Want Not

Once dinner is done, the counters wiped down and clean dishes put away, it’s time to take out the trash. For the college’s kitchen staff, that means a short trip to the compactor and a remarkably light load.

Even though the 50-strong crew in Ruth’s Marketplace has served up its typical daily quota of 2,200-plus breakfasts, lunches and dinners, Dining Services now sends less than a full garbage bag to the landfill after each meal served. New processes in planning, food prep, serving and clean-up are helping the team boost quality, cut costs, and show due respect to the planet and its food supply.

In the United States, some 40 percent of the available food supply goes uneaten, according to a recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This food wasted is the equivalent of depriving every person in the country of more than 20 lbs. of palatable food every month. Most of that food waste is destined to end up in landfills. 

The estimated retail value of this food loss is $165 billion each year. But nutrition is also lost in the mix, says the NRDC report. Food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year, at a time when 1 in 6 Americans lacks a secure supply of food to their tables. “Given all the resources demanded for food production,” the report reads, “it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates.”

Food management issues are, appropriately, matters of moral and environmental concern. Predictions are that 1 in 7 people in the U.S. will visit a food bank at some time in their lives; it’s a tragic statistic that puts a human face on a problem for which all of us must bear some responsibility. And needless food waste is also of significant economic concern to institutions like St. Norbert College, where annual food bills run close to $1.5 million. Dining Services staff have a zero-waste goal in their sights. They’re getting close; read on for the Cliff Notes version of their tactics:

planning and orderingPlanning and ordering
What you don’t order, you don’t need to dispose of; the most effective way to minimize waste is by addressing over-consumption first. Dining Services takes care of business through:

  • Forecasting based on usage reports.
  • Reviewing recipes for components already on hand.
  • Careful menu-planning.
  • Ordering ahead for optimum value.
  • Systematic storage of unused meal components, like sauces and garnishes.
meal preparationMeal preparation
As food is sliced, diced and readied for serving, waste scraps are weighed and sorted into color-coded bins. The contents are variously headed to a local farm (for animal feed), the compost bin or a biodigester (where it is turned into biofuel).The waste-not, want-not mentality that prevails in Dining Services rewards good-housekeeping practices like:
  • Close trimming of produce.
  • Saving trimmings for flavorful broths and stocks.
  • Mindful sorting and disposing of inedible scraps.
  • Menu-planning that meets strict guidelines but also allows chefs creative flexibility.
  • Use of on-hand ingredients first.
cooking and consumptionCooking and consuming
Every week is a fresh challenge as staff maintain their commitment to quality. At the same time, good data tracks just how much they’re saving through:
  • Use of on-hand ingredients first.
  • “Just-in-time” assembly of dishes from prepared components.
  • Continuing communication from the dining room staff to the kitchens about the day’s consumption patterns.
  • Menu forecasting that allows for savvy purchasing.

When food is delivered, and as packaged products are put into use, items like cardboard cartons, cans and plastic containers are sorted and recycled. It all helps limit the amount of material that goes to the landfill. At day’s end, though, someone has to take out the garbage. In the St. Norbert kitchens, that means:

  • Disposal of less than one garbage bagful per meal.
  • Sending little more than plastic wrap, gloves and hairnets to the landfill. 
  • Considerable savings in the budget for garbage bags.
  • Plenty of animal feed and compostable material ready for collection.
  • Deserved pride on the part of all those involved.

The food recovery hierarchy

Source reduction
To minimize loss, the crews first pay attention to purchasing and careful menu-planning – allowing the chefs the flexibility they welcome for creative use of existing inventory alongside the day’s delivery of whatever is fresh and in season. 

Feed hungry people
Prepared food that doesn’t get used is donated to a local food pantry and is used to feed the small army of volunteers who work there. (Because the food is prepared and perishable, it cannot be distributed as pantry inventory.)

Feed local farm animals
Farmer Ray’s animals – cows, pigs, chickens – are the beneficiaries of carefully sorted leavings from the St. Norbert kitchens. On behalf of his stock, the local farmer values the nutritional quality and variety of the deliveries he collects for them twice weekly.

Compost for the community garden
St. Norbert’s own student-run garden on Fourth Street is fertilized with vegetable waste from the kitchens. The garden returns the favor when it shares its harvest with Ruth’s Marketplace.

Biofuel for UW Oshkosh
The first anaerobic dry-fermentation biodigester in the western hemisphere was built at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Food waste from St. Norbert contributes to the plant, which produces enough electricity to supply 10 percent of the university’s needs.

Food waste at St. Norbert was reduced by 44 percent in the first year of the waste-reduction initiative, saving $1,000 or more in compactor and landfill fees. The college’s trash compactor, which once needed emptying every four weeks, has not been emptied since October.

food recovery hierarchy graphic

 March 14, 2016