UM Dining Services, GreenU programs work to lower impact on environment

Posted February 3, 2018


“Take all you can eat, but eat all you take.”

It’s a simple premise, notes Michael Ross, resident district manager of UM Dining Services, but one he sees many students fail to follow at campus dining halls.

There’s bound to be tons of excess at a place as expansive as the University of Miami, but the university works diligently to ensure that students and faculty create as little food waste as possible, and that leftover food is donated, converted to a more environmentally friendly waste, or re-purposed in a useful way.

Ross works with UM via the food provider Chartwells, a huge international entity that is the world’s sixth-largest employer, having a presence in 50 different countries across the globe. He spends a lot of time in our dining halls, where you might spot him engaging with students and serving meals. The biggest food waste issue he has observed there is diners putting way too much food on their plate.

“We encourage students to start small. They can always get up to get more food, but you cannot put any food back,” said Ross. “Our dining halls are both all-you-care-to-eat facilities, which seems to encourage students to eat with their eyes and not their stomachs. In other words, students often take more food than they realize because of the number of options.”

Ana Alvarez, the executive director of Auxiliary Services at UM, has noticed that freshman, who make up just about half of the 3,920 students with a meal plan, are prime culprits of taking too much.

“Kids, it’s their first time away from home for a lot of them, and now they can eat whatever they want. They put much more on their plate than they’re going to wind up eating,” said Alvarez.

She said she thinks that having smaller plate sizes — so a full plate wouldn’t have as much food on it — could be a way to help reduce this issue, as could serving pre-portioned meals.

Furthermore, Ross stressed that students should not feel obligated to accept what can sometimes be heaping helpings of food served onto their plate.

“Some of our stations are served by associates, let them know if you want a smaller portion – they are always happy to accommodate you,” Ross said.

He offered some words of wisdom to those looking to reduce their waste: “If students kept in mind that they could always go back to get more food and take less initially, that would greatly reduce our food waste. If you’re not sure if you like something, take a small portion to try!”

The Hecht-Stanford and Mahoney-Pearson dining halls produce about 6,000 meals per day, combined, according to Ross.

As for how they determine this amount, Alvarez said that data is collected and analyzed on how much food is typically consumed, which is passed on to the dining halls, who then prepare the right amount of food to accommodate all possible patrons.

Inevitably, with such large-scale food production comes a good amount of unserved and uneaten food. Ross said that the amount of waste adds up to just under 500 pounds per day, and that the food service staff works hard to ensure the most efficient use of food.

“We try to batch [cook a large amount of food at once] as much as possible. With some things, like chicken tenders, it’s much easier than with, say, lasagna,” Ross noted. “We also have tried to have more display cooking, things like omelet stations, where the food is made to order right in front of you.”

The variability in the number of people visiting each dining hall per day leads to a lot of quality food being left over. The main recipient of this food is the Miami Rescue Mission, an organization that collects food to give to the local homeless population.

“We donate the food that has been prepared but has not been on the line; in other words, any untouched food,” explained Ross. “In the Fall of 2017, we donated over 8,800 pounds of food to the Miami Rescue Mission.”

He added that the Miami Rescue Mission sends trucks to collect food every week and UM donates about 275 pounds of food during each collection.

The university’s dining services work with Miami’s on-campus chapter of the Food Recovery Network, a student-led organization which recovers food that would otherwise go to waste and donates it to people in need.

Additionally, through the Imperfectly Delicious Produce nationwide initiative, UM purchases produce that would normally be thrown out because it doesn’t look perfect, but is still good to eat. The berries and oranges that you might inspect at the supermarket and not purchase because of some small, insignificant blemish are utilized in dishes like salads and fruit bowls instead of being thrown out for superficial reasons.

Dining Services isn’t alone in their efforts to promote environmentally friendly practices.

“The Office of Sustainability [GreenU] is in charge of monitoring, communicating, educating, and promoting sustainability at UM for staff, faculty, students, alumni, and the community,” said Teddy Lhoutellier, the manager of GreenU. One of the organization’s main initiatives using food waste is the coffee grounds collection program.

“It’s collecting grounds from Starbucks and making it available to our management to spread in areas they consider important,” explained Lhoutellier. “The good thing about coffee grounds is that it repels some insects and adds a little bit to the soil — it’s an amendment to the soil. It’s a good composting soil.”

This soil is utilized in the school’s arboretum, so students can actually see how the grounds produced from their daily Caffè Americano are repurposed.

Another intriguing part of Miami’s environmentally conscious work in dining is the Bio Digester. How does it work?

“Basically what it does is that all the pre-consumer [organic] food, meaning food coming from the kitchen [is placed into] a machine that grinds everything with water and enzymes,” explained Lhoutellier. “It turns all of the food waste into grey water, so it goes into the sewer instead of a landfill.”

Only the Hecht-Stanford Dining Hall has one for now, but Lhoutellier expressed that efforts are being made to place another machine in the Mahoney-Pearson Dining Hall in the future.

Lhoutellier, when comparing the Bio Digester to just throwing food scraps into the trash, described it as, “Better for the environment, but not the best,” he said. “We would like, obviously, to be able to do something with the food waste, but it’s [the Bio Digester] also the most cost-effective right now. You have to consider those kinds of things too. We’re looking at using the fluid from the Bio Digester, since it’s full of nitrogen, as a fertilizer liquid for landscaping, but right now we don’t have that in place.”

One food waste reduction method that is noticeably absent is composting. Alvarez, Ross and Lhoutellier all brought up this point. Lhoutellier bemoaned the lack of an industrial composting facility in the region.

Ross said, “It’s hard to compost with post-consumer food waste, especially in Florida.”

He also expressed that it depends on state governments, as more liberal political leaders in states like Vermont have placed a big emphasis on composting, to the point where it’s second nature at college campuses in those states.

Even without composting, UM Dining Services and GreenU are two organizations making an effort to reduce the UM’s environmental footprint. It’s unlikely we can totally eradicate food waste, but through portion control, charitable donations, re-purposed waste products, and utilizing food that may not look perfect, but tastes just fine, The U works hard to do its part.