By Maddy Routon
This week, the Sustainable Food Systems team got down and dirty with food waste. Yes, we sunk ourselves wrist- and ankle-deep into students' leftover sludge to bring to you solid (and liquid!) data on waste.
Our dinner team started us off last Thursday, working from 5pm-9pm in Covel Commons dining hall. Consisting of Hannah Doan, Alice Wong, and Gabrielle Ruxin, this tremendous trio decked themselves out in plastic protective gear and battled the evening rush in the dish room. By the end of the night, these lovely ladies were covered in macaroni cheese and pork loin juice and managed to collect 280.89 pounds of solid waste!
Following in their daring example, the lunch team consisting of Katie Pastor and both team leaders, Joseph Martinus and myself, ventured into the exciting and culturally diverse dining environment of Feast. This dining hall, situated in Rieber Plaza, features two distinct and authentic Asian cuisines at each meal period. Our team worked during the Chinese and Japanese lunch rush on a so-called "soup day," which presented unique cultural and traditional dining dialogues that add dimension to our work.
As we toiled through the afternoon, we noticed that a majority of waste was in the form of soup or rice. This has brought to light an issue of distinction between deliberate, conscious waste and adherence to cultural norms that dictate dining behavior. The sous chef confirmed what we had already come to expect: these two meal components are seen less as stand-alone ingredients and more as a base for other parts of the dish. It is customary to eat the noodles and vegetables out of the soup and leave the primarily water-based broth behind. However, we were not comfortable simply writing off this major component of waste, because it contained a whole grocery list of other ingredients being thrown out. We encountered dishes full of eggs, noodles, vegetables, and other add-ins, some hardly touched. In this way, we think this aspect of our research remains vitally important, and the soup cannot be fully disregarded in the way that apple cores and banana peels are dismissed as inedible. The team seeks to balance cultural understanding, respect of tradition, and accommodation of diversity (which is paramount in understanding the human-nature interaction component of environmental research) with authenticity in the presentation of our data.
Going forward, we are excited for the rest of our research and the education initiatives of spring quarter. Our involvement with the culturally diverse and uniquely authentic experience of Feast will allow us to transcend the fundamental concerns of food waste and extend our reach into understanding social and traditional aspects of the dining experience. On the other hand, Covel Commons offers many interesting issues to explore: the affect of trays on the amount of food waste, the preferential consumption of certain dishes and subsequent disregard of others, and temporal influence over dining habits.
Ultimately, we are seeking to find controls for comparison in an uncontrolled world, learning from our experiences, and sharing best practices with other team members. In the near future, we will be extending this new information to students who can truly affect change in the dining halls, hoping to foster a deeper understanding and a closer connectivity between students and their consumption habits.