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Thursday, April 18, 2024
Gordon Dining implements new strategies to cut down on food waste. 

Gordon Dining implements new strategies to cut down on food waste. 

Gordon Dining dishes out new policies to reduce food waste

Walking into Gordon Dining & Event Center, you are inundated with smells of omelettes, burgers and stir fry. As you pull out your Wiscard to pay, a fresh waffle on your plate, you wonder, “where do all those ingredients go at the end of the night?”

Thirty to 40 percent of food in America is wasted, which translates to 218.9 pounds of food per person each year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But at UW-Madison, Gordon Dining Hall is implementing practices that may help conserve food.

Seven percent of trash on campus was recyclable, nearly half was compostable and 28 percent of the recycling should have been in the garbage, according to a trash audit conducted by Office of Sustainability student staff in February 2017.

Management at Gordon responded by training employees on how to properly dispose of trash. A month after teaching staff the new methods, student staff at the Office of Sustainability did another trash audit which found that only 2 percent of the trash was recyclable, 4 percent was compostable and 7.5 percent of the recycling should have been in the trash.

Since these audits, Gordon has worked to become more waste conscious. By taking away trash cans and recycling bins from the building and adding a conveyor belt, students can no longer throw away entire trays of food. Instead, employees sort the food waste throughout the day and at the end of the night.

“If a product can be reused, we reuse it. If a product cannot be reused but donated, we donate it,” said Director of Dining and Culinary Services for University Housing Peter Testory.

Gordon makes major changes to strategies and management

Gordon switched from sending trash to the UW-Madison agricultural research station to a local digester in Middleton.

The machine sorts out contamination, recycles food and separates out organics. All organic material goes into large tanks that heat to over 100 degrees and digests the materials. Methane is released as a byproduct that is captured and transferred over to the local grid at Madison Gas & Electric to produce electricity. Solid byproduct is sold to farmers as compost.

Gordon has been able to clean up its waste stream and allow for the digester to sell the end-result solid byproduct to local farmers. Without cleaning up the waste stream and leaving bits of contamination in the compost, this switch to a digester would not have been able to occur.

“You can’t be growing things with bits of plastic,” said University Housing Sustainability Coordinator Breana Nehls.

When consumers were responsible for themselves, almost 30 percent of the waste streams had contamination and would have rendered the solid byproduct useless. A large part of the contamination came from the compostable to-go boxes Gordon formerly used.

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After identifying this problem, Gordon, along with all UW-Madison dining halls, switched to using to-go tokens. The coins are turned in at the cash register for a plastic to-go box, which students will later return at the entrance of Gordon in a machine that then dispenses another token. The system has a return rate of 400 to 500 containers per day at the Gordon location.

“The ticket-to-takeout is providing a more sustainable way for people to take things on their way to go,” Nehls said.

Gordon also updated its management style last spring. Certain employees focus solely on how much food is used, the amount left over and amount produced, which all determine how much food dining halls order, according to Testory.

“We check everything, down to the amount of parmesan cheese that was used by folks putting parmesan on their pizza,” he said.

Before donating, Gordon determines if the food will be safe for organizations to reuse by considering aspects like whether or not the food was available for self-service.

Unable to guarantee whether or not a food has been contaminated by sick customers, Gordon follows Industry Best Practice and refrains from donating items from the salad bar and other self-service areas.

“Our number one priority is quality and making sure the food is safe and good to eat the next time,” Testory said. “We may take marinara and cool it down and turn it into lasagna or some other type of pasta dish. We may use chicken breast that we cooked, cool them down and cut them up for the salad bar. We try to reuse anything that we can the best way we can without sacrificing any quality or integrity of the product.”

He said there aren’t many products that Gordon cannot or will not donate.

Gordon’s efforts may affect campus food insecurity

Gordon has donated to three major student-led food recovery organizations since 2016: Open Seat, Campus Kitchen and Food Recovery Network. Open Seat and Campus Kitchen are organizations that provide meals for food-insecure students who cannot always guarantee they’ll be able to pay for food.

All three organizations work to combat the problem of food insecurity, defined by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”

“When I talk to students who are grappling with material hardship, they say they are super busy,” said Anthony Hernandez, a researcher at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. “They are just trying to survive. They don’t have the time to figure out these resources — but these resources can really make a difference.”

A study conducted by the HOPE Lab, which surveyed 70 two- and four-year colleges, found that 42 percent of students at four-year institutions across the U.S. reported having low to very low food security.

At UW-Madison, 12 percent of students reported not always having the means or funds to ample food and housing, according to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey. In other words, one in eight UW-Madison students are struggling to consistently have access to healthy, safe food.

Though there have been efforts to combat campus food insecurity, Hernandez said there is still more to be done.

“This is work we need to do,” he said. “This is very urgent work.”

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