Reducing food waste at UWRF is mission for Chartwells, campus officials

Posted February 26, 2017

Food waste is a problem at UW-River Falls, so campus officials are teaming up with dining services company Chartwells to do something about it, from raising awareness among students to bringing in new technology.

In one effort, Chartwells and the campus Office of Sustainability recently sponsored a showing of a documentary film about food waste.

“Just Eat It” is a 74-minute documentary detailing the six-month challenge undertaken by food lovers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin to live off food waste. Rustemeyer is the producer and Baldwin the director of the Canadian documentary. For six months, the couple asked around at grocery stores and farmer’s markets for “culled” goods (ones that are taken off the shelves for one reason or another) and dumpster-dived for all of their food supplies. Their aim, they said, was to make a point about how much good food is sent to landfills.

“The scale of the stuff we’ve seen is pretty shocking, and I think we’ve only seen the littlest amount,” Rustemeyer said in the documentary. She and Baldwin found a garbage bin filled with packages of hummus that didn’t appear to be expired or damaged in any way, and multiple large boxes of chocolate that were likely thrown out because of incorrect labeling. A lot of food deemed “ugly” was also rejected by either consumers or retailers, and consumers often threw out food because they let it go bad in their refrigerator.

The documentary brought in a number of different experts on the topic, including Dana Gunders, a senior food and agriculture scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and authors Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom. The film covered all different aspects of the food industry from growing to consumption, and what it found was that a startling amount of perfectly edible food is thrown away, particularly on the retail and consumer end of the process.

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted, amounting to 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of edible food in 2010. Not only is this a waste of food that could have gone toward hungry people, according to the USDA, but it is also a waste of vast amounts of land, water, energy and labor.

Sabrina Huebl, a UWRF plant science major in her junior year, is one of 114 people who attended the “Just Eat It” viewing. She said that the experience was eye-opening for her.

“I didn’t really realize how much stores throw away,” she said, “and especially food that’s still good. I guess you only think that it’s expired food or waste food that’s thrown away.”

After the film, UWRF Sustainability and Custodial Supervisor Mark Klapatch and Kayla Holicky, a dietitian nutritionist with Chartwells, spoke to the audience about a small-scale study they conducted in the Riverside Commons in early February. In it, they spent two separate lunch periods (three hours each period) collecting all of the food off the trays that students handed back at the ends of their meals. After sorting out anything inedible (banana peels, apple cores, chicken bones, etc.), the amount of wasted food was totaled.

Over the course of the two lunch periods and about 1,600 customers, the study found that a total of 170 pounds of edible food was discarded, sometimes in near-pristine condition. The study, Holicky admitted, is limited because of its small size. The number of customers who came in those two days may not have been representative of an average lunch period, and breakfast and dinner were not taken into account.

“If you were to conduct this for a whole week,” Holicky said, “or even a whole day, you might see a significant amount more.”

Chartwells has been using a variety of methods to reduce food waste, although most of its control over the situation is in the cleaning and cooking process. One method the company has implemented is Trim Trax bins, clear buckets with measuring marks on the sides that show them how much food has been overcooked or thrown away as scraps.

Sherry Bruggeman, the food service director at River Falls High School, said she’s been using the Trim Trax buckets in the kitchen for the past 10 to 12 years and the method has proved effective.

“I think doing things visual is huge,” she said. She also said she believes that implementing a similar strategy on the consumer end — showing students what they’re throwing away in a clear bucket — would have an impact as well.

Chartwells is utilizing other methods to reduce food waste, such as recipes that reuse scraps that have been untouched by consumers.

At the very end of the process, the University Center is working on replacing its old dishwasher system. Jay Plemon, who is the assistant director of the UC, said that the old system is very out of date, and is extremely wasteful of water and power as well as being difficult to do repairs on because of being a discontinued model. The new dishwasher, he said, will use considerably less water and energy, and will include a system that will grind and dehydrate food waste into ready-to-use compost.

“Essentially, 100 pounds of waste would be dehydrated down to about 10 pounds of actual waste,” Plemon said. “What comes out is the contents kind of look like fish food.”

The old system used a pulper to process waste food into a paste, but because of the moisture in it, the paste itself couldn’t be used as compost. The UC would have needed a separate composting system to break the paste down into something usable. Composting, Klapatch said, is out of the question until UWRF has the funds to create its own system or until it can find a contractor in the Twin Cities to collect the organic waste. In the meantime, he said, the new dishwasher will lessen the amount of organic waste that goes to a landfill.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to do that, because it gets at the problem of consumer waste and people taking too much food,” Klapatch said. “The proper solution would be people not wasting food.”