Striving to Reduce Food Waste

Students call for food donation program

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Illustration by Franky Olivares.

You just got to the dining hall after a long day. You think you’re starving, so you pile on the pizza, vegan wings, fries, roasted veggies and mashed potatoes. You also make yourself a bowl of cereal, because why not? Thirty minutes later you’re carrying your plate to the conveyor belt with half the food still on it. 

Almost 1,800 tons of excess waste went to the Santa Cruz landfill during the 2017-18 academic year. That’s about the same weight as 140 full garbage trucks. About 500 tons were reused, while just over 1,000 were composted and about 1,150 were recycled. Dining services was the top contributor of campus waste last year, and almost no food was donated. Some campus environmental organizations have tried bringing awareness to this issue.

Environmental studies third-year Maximilian Pérez helped facilitate the Blueprint Breakout on Waste workshop earlier this quarter with the Student Environmental Center. Some students attending the workshop brought up the California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a law that protects those who donate food to persons in need if there are no health issues with the food prior to its donation. 

“If the food is donated in that regard, then the university would not be liable for it,” Pérez said. “That was used as a reason [at the workshop] for why the dining halls could be doing more to donate. As it is, it doesn’t appear that a lot of the food is donated. It seems that it’s mostly just composted.”

Reusing, recycling and composting help the environment, but they don’t solve the issue of food insecurity. 

According to a spring 2016 survey, 44 percent of UC Santa Cruz students experienced food insecurity. Afrikan/Black/Caribbean identified students and LGBTQIA+ students experienced it at 62 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Swipes for Slugs and the various on-campus food pantries strive to alleviate food insecurity, but even with these programs many students are still food insecure.

Some students proposed more food donation programs, but current campus regulations make it difficult to donate food left over in the dining halls at the end of the day. 

“From what I’ve seen working at [the Porter-Kresge dining hall] for the last 2 1/2 years, we’re really good on compost,” third-year Michael Richie said. “Of course, at the end of the day we can’t have students take home food because we don’t want [the university] to be liable if they get sick because they take home food and when they eat it at home it’s not to temperature. That’s just not within the regulations of the school.”

The California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act addresses the university’s liability concerns. Dining services could legally donate excess food to students without meal plans or those who experience food insecurity. Another option is to give excess food to the Homeless Services Center or Food not Bombs. Currently, UCSC does not have any food donation programs set up besides the food pantries and Swipes for Slugs. 

The Sustainability Office piloted the Food Recovery Project during the 2017-18 academic year, which helped students experiencing food insecurity while reducing food waste. The program recovered excess food from the Perk Coffee Bars and Owl’s Nest Cafe and diverted it from the landfill to the various food pantries on campus at the end of each day. The pantries distributed all the recovered food within 24 hours of each delivery.

The Global Food Initiative now runs the project, diverting the food to the Cowell Basic Needs Cafe. Campus partners could look at expanding this program to other parts of campus, said student members of the Zero Waste Team in an email. They offered some additional suggestions as well.

“Students and staff eating in dinings halls can commit to only taking as much food as they know they will eat,” the Zero Waste Team said in an email. “Dining can continue to ensure that they are only preparing the amount of food that will actually be eaten during each meal period. Dining and other campus partners could explore a program where staff/students receive the excess food between meal periods.”

The Food Systems Working Group, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, the Kresge Co-op and Real Food Challenge are some of the many programs available for students to get involved with food and environmental justice on campus.