Even the occasional football player in Dewick has put down his fork in defeat, unable to finish what’s in front of him. It’s easy to see how Tufts students could be tempted to put too much on their plates—on any given night in the Tufts dining halls, students are presented with vegan options, vegetarian options, Halal options, gluten-free and dairy-free options, salad materials, hot dishes, starches, spreads, yogurts, carbonated and filtered drinks, six or seven kinds of coffee, and at least three desserts. Though the production of food waste has dropped by 30 percent since Tufts Dining went trayless in 2010, last year the Medford campus alone composted more than 300 tons of food waste.
And this pattern is part of a larger trend. According to a National Resources Defense Council (NDRC) paper from 2012, 40 percent of food in the US is wasted. As a result, thrown-away food has become the biggest contributor to America’s waste production each year. The NDRC predicts that salvaging just 15 percent of our wasted food could feed over 25 million Americans each year, a significant number when you consider that one in six Americans does not have secure access to food.
Over the past summer, Tufts senior Thomas Cunningham saw the need for these redistribution processes to happen at Tufts. He began working to expand a partnership with an organization called Food for Free.
Food for Free is a Boston-based nonprofit that prevents good food from going into the compost heap. Last year, Food for Free distributed two million pounds of food from all over Boston to help feed over 25,000 people. And, as of January 2016, Tufts Dining Services has developed a full-scale partnership with them, donating 1,500 pounds of food to send to local high-need families.
“I think the Food for Free program is an example of how impactful nonprofit startups can be,” said Tufts sophomore Josie Watson, an organizer and participant in the new Tufts partnership program. “Food waste redistribution is a practice that has the potential to eliminate hunger in this country, and yet it’s a hard practice to approach as a government, or a body of community leaders. It needs to be approached from the ground up, and that’s what Food for Free does. They’ve been making a huge impact on the food insecure communities of Cambridge and Somerville.”
In order to make this program work, Food for Free has begun a chapter at Tufts called the Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative (TFRC). TFRC is a coalition of different food-focused student groups that send in two student volunteers per night to salvage the surplus dining hall food. The job of the volunteers is to package the hot-bar-style leftovers into individually portioned, balanced meals to be delivered to people experiencing homelessness.
Using school lunch-style trays, the volunteers pack each meal with a serving of vegetables, a serving of protein, and a serving of starch. They then insert the tray into something called an Oliver machine, which uses heat technology to seal the tray for freshness. The meal is then delivered to its recipient, undergoing a single freeze cycle to be microwaved and eaten.
“The concept is food with dignity,” Cunningham said. “It’s food that I would eat, I would give to my family, my friends. It’s not a secondary class food system for people just because they don’t have the means to otherwise access what we would consider the traditional food system.”
Unfortunately, because the volunteering system only began about two weeks ago, Tufts does not yet have an Oliver machine. Instead, TFRC has had to make do with what Lucy Zwigard, a GreEco Rep who coordinates volunteers for TFRC, calls an “intermediate system.”
“Instead of giving Food for Free a large tray of frozen food, what we’ve been doing is creating portion sizes in plastic baggies,” Zwigard said. “But it’s not a great solution because we’re generating a lot of plastic waste… Ideally moving forward we would have [an Oliver machine] in the kitchen and we could make the meals right here to then give to Food for Free.”
According to Cunningham, the majority of the food rescued by TFRC volunteers is going to families temporarily based in hotels. At any given week in Massachusetts, about 1,500 families experiencing homelessness are placed in hotels as an emergency measure by the state. Because the hotels do not have kitchens, only microwaves, Food for Free’s microwavable meals are one way for those families to eat.
Before the advent of TFRC, Cunningham said, most of this food was composted. In dining halls, food waste from student plates is collected into huge barrels and taken either by Save That Stuff or Herb’s Disposal. Save That Stuff takes all food waste and food-soiled recyclables (except coffee cups, plastics, and styrofoam) and processes it in Hamilton, MA at Brick Ends Farm. The composted product, which takes anywhere from three months from three years to be ready, is later resold. And while compost is technically a “zero-waste” solution insofar as the food is not sent to landfills, there is an undeniable mammoth waste of nutrients, water, and fossil fuels.
Another long-standing group, Tufts Food Rescue, does similar work. Previously led by senior Brendan Donohue and recently taken over by Hannah Shevrin, Tufts Food Rescue primarily off-campus, taking excess food from nearby grocery stores and driving it to places such as food pantries and homeless shelters.
Donohue said that most of the food items he picked up were things that grocery stores couldn’t sell. “Maybe it was a few boxes of pasta where the corners were dented… A lot of bakery items that are at the current sell-by date. So they legally can’t sell it anymore, but this food is still going to be good,” he said. “So we make sure that these places aren’t throwing their food away.”
Unfortunately, producing huge quantities of compost is still a problem. Hodgdon On-The-Run, a popular take-out option for students, is not involved with the new TFRC program and continues to discard its food surplus at closing time. Jake Rochford, a Tufts freshman and a Hodgdon employee, said that throwing away food is the hardest part of his job.
“Working at Hodgdon, especially working at closing time, we’ve thrown out pounds and pounds of Pan-Asia and Hodge-Podge food each night, and other stations do the same,” Rochford said. “During my shift I’ve tried to give away larger portions of food towards the end of the night because it would be thrown out anyway, but that still doesn’t promise a lack of food waste since those customers most likely don’t finish the amount I serve to them.”
Adding to the food surplus is the fact that catered events at Tufts do not participate in TFRC, despite Cunningham’s effort to reach out. Cunningham explained that he sent an email to the head of catering offering to pick up leftover food from a dinner at Gifford House, but was declined. The response said that Tufts Catering uses accurate projection methods and that there is usually very little left over.
However, some student staffers of Tufts Catering refute the claim that there is no surplus. One current employee, who requested to remain anonymous, explained the process that Catering often goes through after an event.
“If there is food left, which there normally is, the people who worked the event for catering either eat it all or take the remaining food back to Mugar Cafe, where it is then gathered with all the leftover food from all the events,” she said. “Then, it is kind of a free-for-all where everyone can take as much as they want and whatever people don’t take is composted.”
“There is always leftover food, and often a lot of it,” said Conrad Young, a previous student employee of Tufts Catering. “We always offer everything to the cleaning staff that is working that night, and they sometimes take things home but sometimes not. Everything else we compost. We usually compost three to four chafers full of food, sometimes more,” they said.
Since catering services is such a large source of food waste, TFRC members like Watson are eager to try and expand their reach to cover campus events as well as nightly dining hall trips. “There’s a huge opportunity to reduce waste at major Tufts events such as orientation luncheons at the beginning of each year and graduation events,” Watson said. “It’s always hard for the school to estimate how many people will attend these events, so the amount of food provided is always greatly overestimated. It’d be exciting to see how much food could be salvaged from these events.”
While the TFRC movement is too new to fully address the problem of Tufts food surplus, a number of additional steps have been taken to reduce on-campus waste. To try to cut down on thrown-out coffee cups, most of the on-campus cafés offer discounts if the buyer brings a reusable mug. Large events like Matriculation are considered “zero-waste” due to the purchase of compostable dishes and utensils, and Tufts Dining Services uses tracking tools to predict how much food they need to order. TuftsRecycles! provides dorms and public areas with recycling bins and post signs to help students sort waste items in their correct places.
However, even with the multitude of waste-reduction initiatives, the Medford campus alone produced over 1,400 tons of trash—landfill trash, not recycling—in 2013. The advent of new programs does not prevent individual creation of waste—after all, the untouched food in the dining halls is now sent to families in need, but the uneaten food on student plates is still dumped into the compost heap, and the sheer quantity of waste is impossible to ignore.
Rochford still remembers his first shift at Hodgdon. “The first night I started working, we cleaned up by putting every station’s food into the same barrel,” he said. “It made this massive heap of trash. I was one of the people they asked to empty the tins and I realized there are hundreds of meals in here that kids have to pay a whole meal swipe for. I realize that every single meal, when it’s not eaten, has the same result every single night. That amount of waste is just crazy.”
with reporting by Lily Hartzell