Michigan State University's Clean Plates at State initiative aims to curb wasted food and educate Spartans on its impact.
Up to 40 percent of food in America goes to waste on an annual basis — including in college and university dining halls. Yet, little research exists on food waste in higher education.
Michigan State University (MSU) Residential and Hospitality Services (RHS) is positioning itself as a pioneer in higher education food waste research through several initiatives, including Clean Plates at State.
Started in 2012, Clean Plates at State is part of a predominately financially based decision to examine how RHS utilizes its food resources. The initiative has also evolved into a way to raise awareness about post-consumer food waste, encouraging students to be mindful of how much food they put on their trays and plates in the dining halls.
"Students like to eat with their eyes; everybody likes to eat with their eyes,” said Carla Iansiti, RHS sustainability officer.
Food waste is measured every Tuesday for nine weeks during the fall semester, with audits taking place in one dining hall per week.
“We take all the plates, and what the students are eating, and then we just weigh them, and then they can simply just see how much they’ve wasted, and they can walk away,” said Iansiti. “It’s very simple. That way they kind of get an idea that they’ve taken a lot of food, or whether they’ve left it on their plate.”
In fall 2018, students threw out 3.16 ounces of food per person on average compared to 3.08 ounces in fall 2017. The 516,818 pounds of total post-consumer food waste in fall 2018 decreased from 535,072 pounds in 2017. The 2017 food waste total equals about 257,536 whole large pizzas, according to RHS.
“Each year is a new year for us with each incoming freshman class," said Iansiti. "Many factors need to be considered when measuring food waste: weather, food combination and events.
"We do this program each year to help our new students understand that MSU cares and is mindful of its resources.”
Anna Osborn, RHS sustainability assistant, and Emma Bellini, RHS student sustainability assistant, along with a team of volunteers, help with the Clean Plates at State audits. Both Osborn and Bellini took classes on the environment and sustainability at MSU. They were aware of how food waste, one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world, affects the environment prior to joining RHS.
Seeing firsthand the amount of food waste in the dining halls has given Osborn and Bellini each a new perspective on the importance of reduction.
“This is something that you can control,” said Osborn, who graduated from MSU with a social relations and policy major and sustainable natural resources minor in 2018. “If you’re aware of the impact you have on how food waste is not good for the environment, you personally can make a difference.
“People are telling me all the time that one person can’t make a difference, but here’s a perfect example of how you can.”
“Everybody can do their own part, whether it’s big or small,” said Bellini, an environmental economics and management junior. “Every little bit helps.”
Iansiti said student reception has been positive. She hopes it inspires other academic institutions to implement similar programs.
“We’re going to do this Clean Plates every fall semester for as long as I’m here and we keep getting sought out for it,” she said. “We get a lot of students and groups that want to help with it. We’re hoping with this, we can create and have some benchmark data that other schools can use as a tool and where to start.”
Iansiti is exploring ways to partner with MSU researchers to further develop the initiative.
“Clean Plates at State is gaining momentum,” she said. “We are getting a lot of students, professors and student groups who are interested and want to be a part of this. We want to better develop relationships and potentially have this program woven into MSU’s academics for research opportunities.”
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