Beyond the bins: Cafeteria services fight food waste through sustainable practices
According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately one-third of the food produced worldwide is wasted. Sustainability Council member Olivia Ford (’24) said food waste and factory farming are two issues she is invested in combatting.
“I did the Cafeteria Committee last year because protecting animals from factory farming and those sorts of things is important to me,” Ford said.
Ford said the group met with Catering Manager Christine Kent and Operations Manager Cosmo Murphy every few months to discuss opportunities for the cafeteria to implement ethically farmed meat, sustainable food packaging and sufficient options for all dietary requirements.
Moreover, Ford said one of the largest initiatives the cafeteria has implemented in the last few years is its plan to combat food waste.
Kent said half of the food waste from the kitchens is obtained through food preparation – peelings, fruit and vegetable cores as well as unusable produce – while the other half is made up of food the cafeteria staff cannot reuse, such as items that have been reheated multiple times.
Murphy said food waste is especially challenging for cafeterias because it is difficult to strike a balance between keeping substantial portions and not serving too much.
“There was a time when the kitchen staff would pile on the macaroni and cheese or, like, a ton of rice on your tray,” Murphy said. “And it was really too much, so they’re keeping an eye on portion control.”
However, Murphy also said underserving students and faculty is not the solution.
“If you start underserving people, they’re gonna get upset with that, and kind of say, well, you know, ‘Kitchen staff have been stingy with my portions now,’ so it’s a balancing act,” Murphy said.
Furthermore, Kent said the cafeteria must follow Westminster’s restrictions on food reheating because the school is situated in the Westminster borough.
“We obviously try as much as we can not to have waste, but there are certain products like rice, for example, that legally, you can’t keep out, you know, you can’t reheat rice,” Kent said.
In addition, Kent said the inconsistent quantities of food that must be produced each day create a challenge for the staff to reduce servings. With no exact number of people eating in the cafeteria at a given meal, she said making sure the staff does not run out of food is the biggest priority.
Nonetheless, Ford said the cafeteria successfully provides healthy and sustainable “food basics to keep students fulfilled.”
Murphy said the actual amount of food wasted is difficult to track as there are food waste bins in the cafeteria, the commons, classrooms and kitchenettes situated across the campus. To trace food wastage, the cafeteria staff and cleaners collected data, tallying the number of food waste bags produced each day Jan. 23-27.
Murphy said a total of 119 bags of food waste were collected by the catering and housekeeping teams. He said the average weight of these bags was 4.25kg. The bags were collected from four areas around the campus: the staff lounge, The Commons, the Lower School conference room and the kitchens.
Still, Kent said it is difficult to assure the validity of the data as many people throw food waste into the general waste bags and general waste into the food waste bags.
“It’s so frustrating,” Kent said. “You look in those bins and everybody throws anything and everything.”
Nevertheless, Murphy said many solutions are already in place to ease the amount of waste produced by the cafeteria, such as Westminster borough’s food waste recycling services, which the school started in 2016.
While previously the food waste had been put out as general waste, this project implements bins designated for food waste only, which are collected and brought to Biogen’s anaerobic digestion facility in Northamptonshire. The food waste is then processed into compost and green energy, according to the City of Westminster.
Murphy said during anaerobic digestion, food waste is compacted and oxygen is removed, producing biogas, which can be used to fuel houses around the facility. He said the process was so successful that the school decided to continue after the trial, and now food waste is converted into green energy and compost every day.
In addition to food waste, Ford said the Sustainability Council Catering Committee has worked to ensure packaging waste in the cafeteria is sustainably sourced.
“ASL does fairly well because their plastic is actually sustainable,” Ford said. “It’s potato starch-based. So, there’s still stuff to improve on, but I think we’re on the up and up.”
Murphy said although solutions for food waste evolve slowly, the school is ready to put its best foot forward to tackle the issue, and said the cafeteria team is “doing as much as we can.”
Kent said when there are leftovers, she would rather give them away than throw them out. She said Middle School Community Action Integrationist Sean Ross would often take the packaged food to the homeless shelter on Fridays.
Murphy said another effort made by cafeteria staff to reduce waste is to put out all unpurchased packaged sandwiches, wraps and salads that expire the next day for students and staff to take home.
“Normally, they’re snapped up in a second by the evening housekeepers or the athletics teams,” Murphy said. “But, that’s a great way, instead of throwing those sandwiches away, to just offer them out for free, and someone always takes them. There’s never any there when I walk past.”
Eden Leavey contributed to reporting and writing.