Using College Food Waste to Feed Food Insecure Students

Approximately 19% of University of California students go hungry at times due to limited resources and an additional 23% lack steady access to a variety of quality, nutritious food. Yet, college campuses are one of the biggest food wasters. College campuses throw away about 22 million pounds of uneaten food each year. That’s a lost opportunity to feed students that are food-insecure.


Food insecurity is not typically associated with college students, but with increased tuition and living costs, many students struggle to get by as they work toward a better future for themselves. About one in ten California State University college students are homeless and more than double that do not have a consistent source of nutritious food.


Food waste is a massive problem. Half of all food produce in America is thrown away because it doesn’t meet our standards of perfection. We want to see only blemish-free vegetables and fruits, but that’s not the way food naturally grows. Food also gets thrown away because it’s uneaten and our standards don’t allow food to be saved for the next day. Cafeterias especially struggle because they have to prepare enough food to feed everyone, but they can’t always predict the exact number of students that will stop in.


There are a number of organizations that work to connect unused food to the people that need it to help decrease food waste and malnutrition. Imperfect, a service delivery start-up, provides customers with deeply discounted “ugly” produce that would otherwise be thrown away. A small box of 10-14 pounds of produce costs $12. The EatBy app helps households reduce their own waste and claims to save families an average of $700 a year. Food Loss & Waste Protocol has a mission to develop an internationally accepted standard to quantify the amount of food removed from the food supply chain. With more accurate information, they hope entities can take steps to decrease food waste.


A number of California campuses also have programs to reduce the amount of discarded food scraps. The Food Recovery Network is a student-run movement against food waste at college campuses. Started at University of Maryland-College Park in 2011, it now has 191 chapters nationwide and has recovered 1,418,630 pounds of food. In response to the recognized need for food for some students, the UCLA Food Closet was started to provide students who are experiencing financial hardship with food. What started as leftover food from on-campus events has morphed into a pantry with donations from staff and other students. The program has received national news coverage and is inspiring other college campuses to create similar programs. Today, about 40-50 students visit the food closet each day to get food and toiletries, which they can do anonymously. Fresno State similarly developed a ‘cupboard’ that provides leftover food from catered events. A mobile app immediately notifies students when food is available.


An innovative idea to reduce food waste among college cafeterias is to go trayless and offer smaller plate sizes. Students often load up their trays with more food than they end up eating. The remaining food goes in the trash. Without a tray, they are less likely to get additional plates of food that they won’t eat. A number of universities have opted to go trayless to reduce food and water waste. One study found that trayless dining reduced food waste by 25% to 30% per person. Additionally, 288,288 gallons of water were conserved, which together saved an estimated annual amount of $57,000. Reducing food waste also saves costs for college campuses. A study estimated that it costs the campus $1.60 for every pound of food removal. Perhaps more important than cost, connecting students with edible food waste allows these students to have access to consistent meals. Access helps them worry less about where they’ll get their next meal from, and concentrate more on their studies. Additionally, better nutrition helps them concentrate in and outside the classroom, which is likely to improve their success rate in college.


When food is wasted in college cafeterias that serve the very people who might need it, it’s a no brainer to develop food closets and other similar initiatives.

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