Hate the Taste of Food Waste: Tufts Dining on Sustainability

On the conveyor belts that churn behind the scenes of the dining centers, uneaten bites of meatloaf, half a cup of pink lemonade, and a pile of left-over fries line the stacks. An average of two million meals are served every year at 10 overall dining locations on the Medford, Somerville, and SMFA campuses. If just one Tufts student leaves about 1.6 ounces of uneaten food on their plate after a single meal, this accumulates to 100 tons of food waste each year, according to an article published in a 2017 issue of the Tufts Nutrition Magazine

As in any dining operation, food waste is difficult to avoid. But Tufts dining and student volunteers have made efforts that include optimizing food use in the dining kitchens, composting, and raising awareness through student-run programs. 

Food loss and waste on campus is symptomatic of a larger problem in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency released a report in November 2021 on the environmental impacts of food waste in the US to address the lack of progress made toward its goal of halving food loss and waste by 2030. 

According to this report, more than a third of all food produced in the nation is never eaten, and almost a quarter of landfill and municipal waste consists of this uneaten food. Not only does this result in a waste of the resources needed to cultivate these food products, but it also leads to increased greenhouse gas emission and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example, the amount of agricultural land wasted annually to produce uneaten food is equal in area to the size of California and New York combined. 

As part of their Path to Carbon Neutrality Webinar series, on January 25 the Office of Sustainability at Tufts facilitated a virtual conversation between Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos and Nutrition Marketing Specialist Kelly Shaw. The duo discussed how their team is working toward more sustainable dining practices by reducing food waste on campus, sourcing food locally, and building plant-based menus using fair trade and organic ingredients. Klos and Shaw reiterated Tufts’ commitment to reducing their landfill waste by 3 percent annually. 

Reducing food waste does not only concern the student and their plate. During the webinar, Klos said, “One aspect of waste reduction… that goes far beyond containers or composting is the waste that comes from being energy or water inefficient.”  For example, Klos led the effort to replace the Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center dishwashing machine in 2012, which halved the operation’s water usage.

Another Tufts dining initiative that Sustainability Program Director Tina Wilson mentioned during the webinar is the composting program, which Klos introduced in 1994 with the help of two Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning graduate students. According to the Office of Sustainability, Tufts sends its compost to local handlers that turn the food scraps into nutrient-rich soil, which serves as an alternative to artificial fertilizer and helps keep food waste out of landfills. 

Klos mentioned ongoing partnerships with student groups, such as the Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative. TFRC collaborates with Tufts Dining to run the Family Meals Program, an initiative where student volunteers package edible surplus food to donate to Food for Free, a Cambridge-based non-profit that redistributes the meals to food-insecure community members in the Greater Boston area. Even though the Family Meals Program faced constraints due to COVID last semester, they still managed to pack 500 meals and save 518 pounds of food through the program according to an infographic presented at the webinar.

Sophomore Evy Miller-Nuzzo, the incoming Family Meals volunteer coordinator, said that students who do not use all of their meal swipes are “a part of why [Tufts has] so much food waste—as a result of having to feed thousands of students… there’s no way to predict how much food people will need.” Miller-Nuzzo said that one way that students can help TFRC’s mission is to donate their unused swipes to programs such as Swipe it Forward or Jumboswipes. 

Another sustainability-focused campus group that works alongside Tufts Dining is the university’s Eco Representatives, who help facilitate “Scrape Your Plate” and “Meatless Monday” events at the dining halls to raise awareness about food, water, and energy waste. Whereas the former event directly addresses food waste, “Meatless Mondays” educates students about the waste created from water and energy inefficiency associated with meat production. 

Regarding “Scrape Your Plate,” Sophomore Charu Vijay, the area leader of the food justice Eco Rep group, said that, “In dining halls, you just put your plate on the carousel and walk away. No one really thinks about what they’re wasting…  [these programs] are just so people are more aware of what’s on their plate.”

As to why students should participate in programs run by the Eco Reps, Vijay said, “I think that a lot of people think of climate change as something that’s going to happen in the next 40 years, maybe it’ll impact their grandkids. But if you look at the data, climate change is actually hurting [us] right now.”

In addition to these educational efforts, Tufts Dining adheres to the principles set by Menus of Change, which provides food service leaders and chefs with food preparation guidance that is healthy and sustainable. According to an infographic shown at the webinar, these principles include serving less red meat, being transparent about sourcing and preparation, and rewarding better agricultural practices.

In the spring of last year, Tufts Dining upped their ante by redesigning the Monday menu at Carm to be completely meatless. According to a 2020 issue of the Tufts Nutrition Magazine, unprocessed red meat production in the United States creates about 20 times the environmental impact of eggs, nuts, and legumes, as well as 45 –75 times higher than that of fruits, vegetables, or legumes.

Sachi Maskara is a first-year student who has been vegan for the past four years due to ethical and environmental concerns around meat consumption. She said that although the vegetarian and vegan options at Tufts can get repetitive, the decent amount of vegan food available at the dining centers was actually one of the reasons she applied to Tufts. 

“A lot of times I do just end up going to the salad bar, because I feel like that would be more filling than what was available at the vegetarian bar… but compared to other universities, Tufts is making quite an effort to cater to the vegan and vegetarian population,” Maskara said. 

According to Maskara, “Meatless Mondays” can lead to a divide among students. She said, “Instead of having something like a “Meatless Monday,” just increasing the amount of vegetarian foods on a daily basis without having a label to it—which creates a social separation—would be better.” 

Vijay commented that certain demographics such as student athletes are particularly hard to reach with sustainability initiatives. Student athlete Kylie Metcalf commented on these barriers: “Many student athletes focus on what we were told by trainers and coaches… They’re so focused on the health and nutrients in their body that they don’t really reflect on the negative outcomes that processing meat has on the environment.” 

Despite the student body’s mixed responses to these initiatives, Tufts Dining continues their sustainability initiatives in collaboration with student volunteers passionate about reducing the university’s footprint. According to Klos, to achieve Tufts Dining’s mission, “It requires a lot of people to be open to thinking differently. If we want what we want when we want it, we’re not going to get there. Yet that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep striving and finding ways to collaborate.”