Food waste is a growing problem in the United States. Approximately 30-40% of the total food supply goes to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The issue is especially prevalent at USC, where residential dining halls and other food locations are responsible for feeding thousands of college students, employees and Los Angeles community members every day. The Food Recovery Network has found that U.S. college campuses are responsible for throwing out 22 million pounds of food each year, discarding a substantial amount of food that could have otherwise gone to students in need. Additionally, this figure points out the number of resources wasted on the production, transportation, storage and disposal of food.
However, the University has taken several steps to eliminate food waste and should continue to work to ensure that the most is made from the food that it prepares.
In 2019, Nichelle Mitchell-Huizar, sustainability administrator for USC Auxiliary Services, and Catherine Atkinson, then-director of sustainability affairs for Undergraduate Student Government, worked together to create a composting program with students who lived in Cardinal Gardens and Nemirovsky Residential College. Students learned about the types of foods that can be composted through the program.
Composting is one way to redirect food waste from incineration or landfills, where it would otherwise be disposed of. However, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, it is the second to least preferred method of food recovery. Better methods to address food waste include decreasing the amount of food produced in the first place and using surplus food to feed hungry people.
The EPA claims that the best way to decrease food waste is to reduce the amount of food produced at the source. However, it would likely be difficult for dining halls and campus restaurants to estimate how much food they should prepare each day considering the large and fluctuating number of people they feed.
A good first step could be to monitor and record how much and what kinds of foods are going to waste. This would create the opportunity to learn where improvements could be made to menus and allow USC to adjust the amount of food prepared each day accordingly.
Inevitably, there will still be more food prepared than consumed. In order to reduce food waste after the fact, the University should implement a program to distribute surplus food to students who are experiencing food insecurity. According to a survey conducted in April 2019 by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 45% of college students reported having faced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
In the past, USC has partnered with St. Francis Center to redistribute excess food from dining halls to local homeless people, seniors and families in need. The University should consider creating a similar program that will redistribute food to food-insecure students on campus. This will help both reduce food waste on campus and support students in need within the community.
Dining halls can also allow students to take out the food that they do not finish. Students who have to finish their meals within short periods of time may leave behind food that they are unable to finish. If dining halls were to allow takeout, students would be able to pack up their leftover food for later as opposed to disposing of it. Not only would this decrease the amount of food waste, it would also be convenient for students who have to schedule their meals around packed academic and work schedules.
On the consumer side, USC should better inform students about the impacts of food waste on society and the environment. It may be easy to throw away a whole plate of food in the moment, but students should ultimately consider the number of resources that go into making it and the number of students who go hungry within the USC community.