When less means more: Print messages help students reduce food waste at dining center
January 12, 2012 —To decrease food waste, hold the trays and add posters.
That's what Kelly Whitehair found while researching food disposed by students at Kansas State University's Van Zile Dining Center. She is an assistant director at the dining center and a December 2011 doctoral graduate in hospitality management and dietetics.
After posters reminded students about food waste during meal services, students threw out 15 percent less food. Posters read: "Eat what you take. Don't waste food."
The finding reveals that simple print campaigns may be an affordable option for food service managers to reduce food waste, Whitehair said.
"All it took to change behavior was a trigger that made students think twice about the topic of food waste before they started eating," she said. "These were just posters I made at home on a word processor. This was not a fancy marketing campaign."
Americans throw away more than 34 million tons of food annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, making up nearly 14 percent of the municipal solid waste stream. Less than 3 percent of that is recovered and recycled.
Whitehair is doing her part with research that could help university dining centers waste less food and implement more sustainable practices.
During the study, Whitehair and students enrolled in an environmental issues in hospitality course scraped food waste -- everything from ketchup and ranch dressing to buns and vegetables -- off of more than 11,000 food trays at Van Zile. They scraped trays five days a week during lunch and dinner.
Whitehair analyzed trays individually. An average of 2 ounces of food was left on each tray, totaling nearly 2 tons of food thrown out during the six-week study. Some students threw out as much as 35 ounces of food scraps, while a third of students threw out nothing.
Whitehair also found that general demographics and beliefs toward sustainability had little impact on the student waste behaviors.
In another part of the study, Whitehair interviewed dining facility managers from universities that no longer use trays. She investigated best practices and student reaction at those dining centers, and she is writing guidelines for schools that are considering not using trays.
Food service managers reported benefits of not using trays, including decreased waste; reduced chemical, water, energy and food costs; and improved student satisfaction.
"They found in customer service satisfaction surveys that people would have much shorter wait times in line because people take less food and make conscious decisions about their food choices beforehand," she said.
Whitehair worked with housing and dining services staff, some of whom teach courses in the department of hospitality management and dietetics.
"We're extremely lucky that housing and dining services works so closely with the College of Human Ecology," she said. "The partnership provides opportunities for students to conduct research at major facilities."
Food waste from Kansas State University's dining centers are composted with other organic waste such as leaves, tree limbs and grains at the university's student farm. University researchers use some of the compost from the North Farm, managed by College of Agriculture students, for erosion, field and greenhouse experiments.
Carol Shanklin, dean of the Graduate School, served as Whitehair's academic adviser. Whitehair earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees from K-State.