What happens to our day-old steak and half-eaten sushi?
If you are a student with an appetite for fresh intellectual discourse served with a side of delicious cuisine prepared by a campus dining hall, the Claremont Colleges can’t be beat.
It is an established fact that the Claremont Colleges’ dining halls serve some of the highest quality food in the nation. Several organizations consistently offer high rankings for our dining halls. College Prowler gives CMC an A+, while Pomona, Pitzer, Harvey Mudd and Scripps all manage A’s.
While many students enjoy the high quality food served in the dining halls, few think about the inevitable result of their gastronomical indulgence: leftovers. Leftover food has several environmental and financial implications for the colleges and students alike. Fortunately, Claremont’s dining hall managers are very aware of the issue of leftovers, and are actively working towards reducing the amount of leftover food and finding alternatives to simply throwing it all in the trash.
To prevent excessive leftovers, the dining halls attempt to cook just enough food so supply equals demand. Rachel Paghunasan, operations manager of Pitzer’s McConnell dining hall, says that the dining hall does this by batch cooking: chefs cook a certain portion of a dish, directly related to how popular it has been in the past, and then serve it. Once the portion finishes, the chef cooks more based on how much more time is left until the dining hall closes, as well as how popular the dish actually is, which can be inferred by how quickly the portion finishes.
Pam Franco, general manager of Collins dining hall at CMC, adds that batch cooking enables chefs to cook portions as close to serving time as possible. Besides making our food fresher, this also allows dining halls to be flexible in terms of catering to the number of guests that show up. “If the guest count at each meal suddenly changes, we begin to see patterns [and] we adjust accordingly,” explains Franco.
As any student who has waited in the long lines for sushi night at Scripps’s Malott Commons or burrito night at Pomona’s Frary dining hall can attest, certain dishes have a history of being extremely popular. Many chefs are able to gauge in advance which dishes are quickly devoured and which only the most hardcore vegans and vegetarians will consume (tempeh scramble anyone?) based on past experience and knowledge, and can therefore prepare an appropriate amount. “In the past, chicken tenders have been very popular, and we cook more of it,” explains Collins sous chef Marcelino Araya.
Paghunasan pointed out that there is a very small amount of leftover food every day at Pitzer, mostly due to the batch cooking technique and how the menu has been organized to include live stations as well as cooked and prepared dishes. While mass prepared dishes generate a lot of food waste, made-to-order stations greatly reduce food waste. Furthermore, a lot of the food, like fruits and vegetables, does not require cooking and can thus be used at a later time while still being fresh.
The Clean Plate Club?
Yet having leftover food is inevitable, despite all the preventative measures employed. At CMC, approximately 30 pounds of food remains daily, while at Scripps and Harvey Mudd there is much less. Just about 10-15 portions of food remain after breakfast at Mudd, according to Ruben Vega, executive chef at the school’s Hoch-Shanahan dining hall. Vega points out that lunch and dinner menus are largely constituted by made-to-order dishes. Pomona and Pitzer were unable to provide figures regarding leftover food.
But what about the half-eaten hard boiled egg left on your plate? To discourage students from taking more food than they’ll eat, Claremont’s dining halls stopped using trays a few years ago. But we aren’t all members of the clean plate club. While students have the option of throwing their leftovers in compost bins at some dining halls, this is a responsibility given to students, who may or may not take it as seriously as they should.
Because of this, the Colleges have come up with a variety of ways in which they can make good use of uneaten leftovers. CMC’s Collins Dining Hall stands alone when it comes to processing leftover food. Brand new digesters were installed last fall behind the tray drop-off station. These machines turn uneaten the food into a black dirt, which can be used as fertilizer. Pam Franco sais that the fertilizer is used to nourish the grounds around CMC’s campus. From Franco’s description, these digesters seem to be very efficient and a fantastic addition to Collins.
Paying it Forward
Some colleges use the help of student-run organizations to address the issue of leftovers that don’t make it to a student’s plate. Food Rescue, a student-run club originally from Pomona that has since spread to Harvey Mudd, CMC and Scripps, is a volunteer-based organization that collects the leftover dining hall food at the end of each day and delivers it to various nearby homeless shelters. These shelters include Pomona Valley Christian Ministry, Inland Valley Hope Partners and the Pomona Corps Salvation Army.
“Donating to charity is always a better option than throwing the food away,” explained executive chef at Harvey Mudd, Ruben Vega. “That way, it’s given to people who actually need it.”
Food Rescue at Pomona collects about two to four trays of food every day. Most of this food consists of main line options that were meant to be served but were not touched by students. Each tray of food can feed roughly 20-30 people.
“There is definitely a feeling of satisfaction that you took an hour out of your day to try to tackle a problem,” explains Nicholas Murphy PO ’13, a Draper Center Volunteer Coordinator who organizes Pomona’s Food Rescue club. “We are not changing the world every day, but it is important for volunteers to realize that over time we have donated a phenomenal amount of food.”
The 5C dining halls are working toward being more financially and environmentally friendly. Food is valuable, and as a consortium, we are very lucky to have a variety of quality dining options. As students, however, we should take the matter of food waste into our own hands. Students need to become more aware of compost bins, which are readily available in many halls and should be expanded to every college. More importantly, students should help themselves to an amount they know they can actually eat rather than wasting their food at the end of their meal, which cannot be donated. Bon appetit!
Sam Kahr contributed reporting to this article.