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Fight Against Food Insecurity Must Start In USC Dining Halls

Marina Peña |
May 24, 2015 | 2:16 p.m. PDT




Every school year, the average college student generates about 142 pounds of food waste. Colleges in total are responsible for discarding an estimated 22 million pounds of unconsumed food per year. Meanwhile, 1 in 6 people in the United States struggle with food insecurity.

Universities across the country have implemented a variety of policies to reduce food waste. From initiating tray-less dining to buying smarter, schools have found creative ways to cut down on food waste. At many schools, composting has become a full-circle practice that is carried out by students. For example, students at Messiah College in Pennsylvania use compost that contains no animal or meat byproducts to fertilize their organic community garden. Moreover, students at the University of California, Davis are focusing on food waste that can be composted such as carrot peels and coffee grounds, so that it can later be donated to community gardens in the area. 

In addition to composting, other universities have decided to take the philanthropic approach. At the University of Maryland in College Park, former undergraduate student Ben Simon founded the Food Recovery Network so that uneaten food from dining halls could be delivered to local agencies that would later redistribute it to the needy. Food Recovery Network began after Simon discovered that there were only a few organizations, such as SPOON at Stanford University and The Campus Kitchens Project that were salvaging uneaten food at college campuses. After realizing the need for an organization, Simon began the network with a group of 11 people. Soon enough, the program expanded to more than 100 chapters around the United States. Since September of 2011, Food Recovery Network has donated 801,821 pounds of food. 

At the University of Southern California, tray-less policies helped save 76,511 gallons of water and 145 gallons of dish cleaning chemicals during the 2008-2009 school year. More importantly, however, USC has taken up composting to help reduce food waste. USC Facilities Management Services has provided compactors to most dining halls so that they can collect food scraps and compost them.  In 2009 alone, more than 338 tons of food waste was composted. 

Nevertheless, USC as an institution has failed to recognize the bigger problem. With an overwhelming 643,640 hungry children as of 2013, the county of Los Angeles is the most food-insecure county in the United States. Additionally, throughout the entire state of California, more than 4 million people are unable to consistently provide food for their families. As a powerful research university in the heart of Los Angeles, USC must reevaluate whether or not composting should be the only method used to reduce food waste. 

Hospitality administrators such as Senior Manager Jeff Miller, however, hold that when it comes to food in general, other subjects besides food waste should be prioritized. 

Our biggest concern is food safety. We are also concerned about not running out of food and providing students with their needs,” said Miller. 

Moreover, Miller claims that at USC’s dining halls and restaurants, an excess amount of food is not an issue. 

“Usually at residential dining halls there is no food left over; we try to do our best to prevent that from happening. We know that there are environmental factors involved, so we try not to have excess food.  During the spring and winter break if there is excess food we give some of it to the Tutor Campus Center. Also, some of the dining halls close earlier, such as EVK at 8pm, so we do distribute that food around campus,” said Miller. 

Living and working on campus as a freshman this year, however, I experienced a different story.  At the end of the day, I would come by Café 84 to grab dinner and would see the kitchen staff throwing away trays filled with un-served prepared food. The first time I saw that, I immediately wanted to know more about why there was so much food being thrown away, given that USC Hospitality also claims to donate its unconsumed food to the Los Angeles Mission

Fortunately, one of the employees at Café 84, Robert Garcia, was willing to tell me more about what he saw happening. 

“Food waste is increasing because of the self-serve service. I try to keep statistics of how much of a certain food students are consuming, so that I serve more of that and less of something else. But at the end of the day I still throw away the food that remains,” said Garcia. 

Apart from advertising that they make food donations, USC Hospitality claims that it composts the majority of viable food products. But even though composting reduces methane production, it does not feed hungry children. Given its location in the most food-insecure county of the United States, the fact that USC regularly throws out unconsumed food is shocking. There are simply better options. 

USC could start its own Food Recovery Network.  Just like dozens of chapters across the country, the network would work by having trained students recover food from eating facilities and transporting it to non-profit organizations around the area where it can be distributed. 

But first, the issue needs more attention from students.  

“If students were to come out and say that this is a really important issue that students want covered, I can imagine that USC is going to receive that relatively well. But I don’t think that students have demonstrated their voice on this topic, to the point that USC can recognize the severity of the issue,” said student and Co-Founder of the Green Student Fund Daniel Redick.  

“There is so much that we could do. The loudest voice on campus is students,” said student and Director of the Environmental Student Assembly, Shawn Rhoads. 

Currently, there is a petition going around on change.org to promote a partnership between USC Hospitality and Food Recovery Network. So far, the petition has received a total of 296 signatures. It’s clear that there is still a long way to go to bring awareness to this matter. 

Hopefully, once students are more aware of the excess amount of unconsumed food that is disposed, USC will recognize that it has the resources to help LA residents struggling with hunger.  Maybe then, Food Recovery Network will be able to confidently step in and be the vehicle that helps reduce the effects of food waste and poverty. 

With 1.7 million residents struggling with hunger in L.A. County, this issue can no longer wait to be addressed.  Students, faculty members and administrators need to take action. 


Reach Contributor Marina Peña here.



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