Miller Dining Hall reduces food waste post-renovation

After a semester of operation, the Miller Dining Hall renovation has passed the test of bringing students a new, modernized on-campus dining experience. For those accustomed to the old Miller, many changes from the renovation are immediately obvious. Included in these visible changes are an increased variety of food options and a larger seating area with a more diverse selection, including couches and sheer aesthetic appeal. Beneath the surface, however, the Miller renovation has changed much more than just the dining experience. It has also changed its environmental impact through reduced food waste.

A study completed by a group of researchers from MSU, with help from faculty, staff and students, has found that the post-renovation Miller Dining Hall has reduced food waste by over 50 percent.

Leading the study were Carmen Byker Shanks and Selena Ahmed, assistant professors in the MSU College of Education’s Department of Health and Human Development and directors of the Food and Health Lab, along with Alicia Leitch, a graduate student in Health and Human Development. With help from Sustainable Food and Bioenergy and Food and Nutrition courses and students and staff from MSU’s Department of Health and Human Development, in a period of three days prior to the renovation, the team found that Miller produced 5,132 pounds of food waste. In another three day period after the renovation, the food waste had dropped to 2,707 pounds. In addition, pre-consumer food waste, or food that is not served to customers, is now entering a composting system, instead of going to a landfill

The reduction in food waste was not an accident: the study team along with Miller planning staff brainstormed a list of ways to reduce the waste before and during the renovation. According to Byker Shanks, included in this list of proposals were using smaller serving utensils, serving smaller portion sizes, using smaller pans of food on the buffet and creating signs that state the amount of food that is wasted. The study team also hypothesized that other factors in Miller influence the reduction in food waste, including changes in the food preparation processes, aesthetics and appearance of the dining hall and consumer expectations.

On Sept. 16, 2015 the U.S. Agricultural Secretary and the Environmental Agency Deputy Administrator revealed the first nation-wide national food waste reduction goal. This food waste challenge launched by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls for a 50 percent reduction of national food waste by 2030. According to the USDA website, the U.S. wastes approximately 31 percent, or about 133 billion pounds per year, of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers.

Some major concerns of the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with those who conducted the Miller food waste study at MSU, include the impacts of food waste on society and the environment. According to Byker Shanks, individuals with limited access to food have no opportunity to obtain it, and waste only increases this problem. When producing and distributing food, natural resources are used in the process. When food is wasted, so are the natural resources, so cutting down on food waste cuts down on emissions. Food waste is also the biggest contributor to landfills and is a large contributor to methane gas production.

With the work at Miller Dining Hall, MSU is on the front edge of the national urgency to reduce food waste. According to the MSU Campus Planning, Design & Construction webpage, preparations and site selection for a new dining hall are taking place. The new dining hall will eventually replace the Harrison and Hannon Dining Halls, leaving another opportunity to reduce food waste on campus.

Food waste reduction at Miller Dining Hall can be considered a victory not only environmentally, but also in terms of interdisciplinary success. Involved in the study, design and implementations of food waste reduction strategies include the research team of Byker Shanks, Ahmed and Leitch; MSU’s Department of Health and Human Development; Food and Health Lab; Sustainable Food Systems program; University Food Services; Office of Sustainability; Facilities Services; MSU Extension; Campus Sustainability Advisory Council and Sustainable Food and Bioenergy and Food and Nutrition courses.