Green Leaders investigate food waste

Nolan Bishop

Members of Whitman’s Green Leaders program are currently investigating ways to increase environmentally conscious practices in cooperation with Bon Appétit in Whitman’s dining halls and cafes. In recent weeks, Green Chief Officer Jacob Frei and other members of Whitman’s Green Leaders met with Bon Appétit General Manager Roger Edens for an environmentally focused tour of dining facilities on campus.

On the tour, Frei was struck by the amount of compostable food waste that is created every week by Whitman’s dining halls.

“One of the things that we learned on the tour was that we generate 4,000 pounds of food waste every week, and I think that’s the main thing there that we want to try and work with them on,” he said.

Photo by Tywen Kelly
Photo by Tywen Kelly

Edens also placed the number at approximately 4,000 pounds of food waste a week, clarifying that most of this waste is actually pre-consumer food waste.

“Most of the food that we end up having to throw out ends up being veggie scraps, like melon rinds and onion skins and things like that,” said Edens. “It might make a pig very happy but it’s certainly not going to feed anyone else. It’s hardly as though we’re throwing out lots of uneaten food.”

In May, 2013, the Bon Appétit Committee held an event focused on reducing post-consumer food waste. For a week, students eating at Prentiss Dining Hall scraped plates into buckets before busing their dishes. These buckets were then weighed, yielding a total of 151.2 pounds of post-consumer food waste collected over the course of a week, or 2.22 ounces of food per person per meal. Edens pointed to these numbers as evidence that Whitman students are fairly food-waste conscious.

“There’s never that much food wasted at meals, and hardly any left over in any of the dining facilities,” said Edens. “In the Campus Center, there’s virtually nothing left over because everything is cooked to order, and even in Jewett, Lyman and Prentiss, there’s not much left over after meals. If there is, occasionally we’ll use it in meals the following day, like putting vegetables in soup. When students leave for breaks, that’s when we have the most food left over because we have to get rid of perishables. Then we usually donate the food to a senior center in town, and they prepare it for Meals on Wheels.”

Although post-consumer waste does not pose a major obstacle to Green Leaders in their efforts to curtail or manage food waste from Bon Appétit in a more environmentally conscious manner, large amounts of pre-consumer waste from the kitchen still requires attention.

Photo by Tywen Kelly.
Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Whitman used to have an industrial composting program, but multiple setbacks over the course of a few years have essentially put an end to large-scale composting at Whitman. The Campus Climate Challenge organization launched the Industrial Composting Working Group in the fall of 2010. A system that could accommodate the 4,000 pounds of food waste produced by Bon Appétit weekly was constructed behind Jewett Dining Hall, and 45,000 Red Wiggler Worms were purchased to facilitate the system and break down the compostable material. In the spring of 2012, many of the worms died due to mismanagement of the shed –– too much food waste was added without enough aeration, and compaction of the waste killed many of the worms. Although the worm population briefly rebounded, and the system ran smoothly for another year and a half, in the summer of 2013 more of the worms died after being out-competed by brown mites. This final setback forced the group to discontinue the program.

Whitman is at the top of a trial list should a municipal composter begin processing food waste, but for now, Whitman’s Green Leaders are making every effort to facilitate small scale composting at residence halls.

“We’ve got little compost bins going at a number of residence halls,” said Frei. “The only challenge becomes making sure that these get emptied into the compost at the Organic Garden pretty frequently.”

The Organic Garden’s compost heap currently represents the only form of composting happening on campus. However, with recent cold weather and limits on capacity, the compost heap at the garden is no longer able to take food waste, and will sit dormant till the spring. Fiona Bennitt, an Open Garden leader, commented on the composting capacity of the garden.

“To my knowledge, the Organic Garden is the only group that offers composting to Whitman students and the community, something which we are very happy to be able to do,” said Bennitt in an email. “Most of the folks who attend our Open Garden sessions bring their food scraps, but we also get many others who just stop by to drop off their scraps on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, the scale of our work is limited by available space and the seasons, and we cannot accept food scraps during the cold months.”

Although Green Leaders do not currently have a specific plan to tackle food waste disposal at Whitman, productive discussion between the group and Bon Appétit may result in a new forms of compost management.

“We tend to not have a specific agenda so that we can be as creative as we can be in finding solutions to problems,” said Frei. “It just allows us not to spend too much time on things that we can’t make progress on and to develop potentially new approaches to old problems, rather than pushing for one item of a plan that we might not be able to achieve.”