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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Less waste in the cafeteria

Shortly after my son gets on the bus in the morning, we find his empty breakfast dishes on the table.

For a while, we thought the boy was doing an excellent job of eating every last morsel. Then we thought the big dog was casually stretching her neck up to table level to lick off the plate as she walked by. Then we found the true culprit: the little dog, who first climbs on the chair to wash the plate for us, then climbs right onto the table to drink whatever milk the boy neglected.

My son says it’s fine, because he likes to share.

We try to share all our food waste. What we don’t eat, and the dogs don’t finish, goes to the chickens. They might get old rice, the leftover seafood chowder, bread crusts, sour milk. The chickens get the pre-meal waste too — the carrot scrapings and lettuce ends, the seedy middle of the peppers, the apple cores.

What no one can eat — orange peels, coffee grounds and egg shells, for example — goes into the compost. The kids have been trained to bring their lunch scraps home for the chickens or the compost, rather than dropping them in the trash can at school where they would invariably end up in a landfill.

It’s easy to eliminate food waste on a micro-level. The problem is the bigger places — those school cafeterias, for instance.

College campuses around the country have found that by getting rid of cafeteria trays they can cut down on waste. Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs is one of hundreds that got rid of trays, discovering that if you make it a little harder for kids to pile up the food in the first place, they carry less to the table — and less to the trash can. No trays means less washing, which means less water, soap and energy used.

Skidmore went trayless in 2006, and Mark Miller, head of the dining services, said the college has cut down on food waste by 20 percent as a result.

It seems like such a simple thing, with the potential for such great savings. The Natural Resources Defense Council says the University of Maine at Farmington, which has been trayless for almost six years, has reduced food waste by more than 65,000 pounds and conserved 288,288 gallons of water. The food reductions average about 45 pounds per person per year. That’s a lot of food that doesn’t have to end up in the landfill.

Sodexo and Aramark, companies that provide food services at colleges and other institutions, say that around half their schools have eliminated trays. Aramark found food waste dropped between 25 percent and 30 percent when students didn’t use trays, the NRDC said.

Some colleges are taking excess cafeteria food to homeless shelters. Students at the University of Maryland formed the Food Recovery Network, initially to take unserved cafeteria food to Washington, D.C., area shelters. In the first three years, the group donated about 30,000 meals.

Other campuses are working toward composting the food waste they still have. Sarah Lawrence University’s compost club begins construction on a campus composting facility next month, with the goal of composting all of the campus’ food waste.

Americans throw out something like 40 percent of the food they buy — from the heels of bread loafs left in the bag to the molding leftover lasagna in the back of your fridge, from the soup you don’t finish at the diner to the eggs your son leaves on his breakfast plate.

A compost bin out the back door is a good place to start. Big institutions can look at what’s going on at college campuses and find places to save too, by “right-sizing” their servings. Not wasting food is more than keeping garbage out of landfills. Eliminating waste from the front end saves money on food costs, and resources in shipping and producing that food that’s not getting eaten.

Like the colleges, we can put less food on our plates to make sure we’re wasting less. You can always go back for seconds if you’re still hungry.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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