Campus composting project works to reduce food waste

You are one in roughly 6 billion people on this earth right now. By the year 2050, you will be one in 9 billion people. Are we preparing ourselves for the big task that is ahead of us in the years to come of feeding 9 billion people?

The Enough Movement, which describes itself as a global community working to ensure food security for the world, suggests we are headed towards a crisis with an insufficient amount of resources to provide affordable, nutritious food for our population. Not only will we need more efficient food production, but food conservation is even more important.

The Natural Resources Defense Council notes that the United Nations predicts we will need up to 70 percent more food to feed the projected population. In order to do that, we must first figure out a way to conserve as much food as possible. With the University of Missouri campus serving over 4.2 million meals in 10 different dinning areas over the course of a year, an effort has begun to measure how much food is being used and how much food is being wasted.

“Each week we do a random sample of 100 plates, and we conduct the total amount of food that’s wasted, and then do the average,” said Michael Wuest, marketing manager for Campus Dining Services. “Do that four times a month, and then we have a plate waste average for that location for that month.”

Students can also see how much of their food is being wasted from their preferred location of dining.

“We measure it, and then we post the measurements or the averages at our tray return areas at each of those four all-you-can-eat facilities,” Wuest said.

The hope is that if students see a visual representation of how much food they are wasting, they may rethink some of their decisions when it comes to loading up their plates for lunch, according to Wuest. In 2011, campus dining made one of the most significant changes yet by going trayless. Having to carry a plate and a drink substantially decreases the amount of food students can carry in one trip. Students have to keep returning to the stations to get food, instead of having a larger size tray and filling it as full as possible.

“The waste did trend down,” Wuest said about the switch from trays to plates. “Now it’s pretty normalized, depending on what’s on the menu for that day.”

Even with the switch from trays to plates, there is still 5,000 pounds of food wasted weekly on MU’s campus. A composting collaboration between Campus Dining Services and the MU Bradford Research Center is helping to reduce that waste and put it to use.

Traditionally, a corn and soybean research-type facility, Bradford has turned into something much bigger and better. In the early 2000s, the research center started producing vegetables. Campus dining decided they wanted to use some of those vegetables to prepare meals for students in dining halls, and that’s where it all began.

In November of 2011, the compost project facility had its ribbon cutting. The team of workers, researchers and dining experts had to write a grant to the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Division. It took them two tries and $70,000, but what started out as a small, vegetable production farm, finally turned into something bigger and more useful than they imagined.

Those involved like to think of the projects as a ‘complete circle.’ They use the compost as a fertilizer to help grow the vegetables and fruits, then sell those products to campus dining services. Student volunteers pick up more than 5,000 pounds of waste a week from dining halls, and start the process all over again.

“The biological engineering students, they go out and collect the food waste from different dining halls and bring it out, and we make compost,” said Timothy Reinbott, Bradford Research Center Superintendent. “The reason the biological engineering students are working on it is because we want them to come up with new ways of composting. We want this to be educational.”

This project is nothing short of educational. The biological engineering students are coming up with many different ways to make the process go faster. Usually it takes four to six months for waste to turn into compost. A new technique the students are using is aeration, which is a process that reduces high moisture content in composting. The students mix in worms, horse bedding and other compostable products to help make the process go faster, so that they can compost more waste in a shorter period of time.

“We can produce more compost than we can utilize,” Reinbott said.

Efforts such as the campus composting project can yield impressive results, but even individual changes will cumulatively result in significant improvements.

“I think that decreasing waste on campus actually starts with the students,” said Alex Stichnote, MU student. “The students need to be conscious that they are not taking too much food. Campus dining will always have waste in regard to food items that go bad because students do not eat them, and I think that the best way to combat this is simply to stop stocking those food items or stock them in lower quantities.”

The National Resources Defense Council lists many other options to improve food conservation. One tip is to shop wisely. Plan meals, use shopping lists and avoid impulse buys. A few other tips are to use your freezer, request smaller portions, eat leftovers and donate non-perishable food items to food banks, pantries and shelters.