This is a guest article written by Food Tank Advisory Board Member Jonathan Bloom. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog “Wasted Food.” Find him on Twitter at @wastedfood. 

Ever wondered what the waste from one college cafeteria meal looks like? Wonder no more.

Above is the accumulated plate waste from one dinner at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. That school's chapter of the fabulous Food Recovery Network (FRN) organized the Weigh the Waste event last year along with the school’s caterer, Bon Appétit Management Company, to communicate just how much food is wasted every day, at every meal.

Message received. “The reaction was incredibly positive, and many students suggested that we hold the event every night in order to bring awareness to the food waste issue on our campus,” said Maya Kaup, the school’s FRN chapter President and event organizer. “A lot of students were also deeply embarrassed, however, by the amounts of food that they had wasted on their plates. We encouraged them to not beat themselves up over it, but instead to think about how they might change their behavior in the future.”

The filled bin visual, as seen above and in person, highlighted that evening's 140 pounds of wasted food. Now imagine that 0.2 pounds of waste per student happening three times daily during the school year. And, the bin would likely be more full, had the event not occurred on a Trayless Tuesday, when trays aren't used in an effort to minimize food waste. (Many all-you-can-eat cafeterias have abolished trays altogether, which tends to trim wasted food by about 30 percent.) To wit, a more recent Weigh the Waste event in October at Willamette yielded even more waste per student—0.25 pounds.

That level of waste explains the need for these events. And they’re not specific to Willamette. Several Bon Appétit schools held Weigh the Wastes in 2015, including Claremont McKenna College, Lewis & Clark College and St. Mary’s College. These events and similar initiatives illustrate several themes:

  • Our eyes are decisively bigger than our stomachs. Students tend to take too much food for a variety of reasons. It’s partly driven by wanting to 'get your money's worth,' whatever that means. And this is also partly because we seek variety. Sometimes a busy schedule or a disliked dish prompt students to waste food. But overall, it's because they can—there are no repercussions. And that's because...
  • The all-you-can-eat model is problematic. Implemented in the name of hospitality, this strategy has heavy costs—both overeating and waste, not to mention bloated board coasts. And logistically, the price of always having enough is perpetually having too much. Solutions like removing trays, tracking consumer demand and preparing food as need arises all help, but they’re all just bandages on the ever-bleeding wound that college food service calls "all-you-care-to-eat."

I organized a similar event at Bucknell University when I was an expert-in-residence there a few years ago. The exercise was a memorable one, and the massive scale and bin certainly got everyone’s attention. Some students objected, saying it was 'disgusting' or 'uncool.' I agreed on both counts, but I was referring to the startling level of waste, not the waste audit.

Without heaping guilt or blame upon individuals, these waste weighs prompt students to ponder their own role in the daily creation of food waste. While that pondering may be fleeting, I've heard from many students who say that the 'gross' visual really stayed with them. And that's all you can hope for.