Redirecting Food Waste: Rethinking Policies and Practices in American Universities
As part of the Master of Arts in Social Design program at MICA, each student must complete a thesis project in which they go through human-centered design process.
My thesis explored the question, "How might we transform campus food waste into local food equity?" by using MICA as a case study and looking at other Baltimore universities as points of comparison.
At the end of the semester, each student writes a thesis publication and gives a seven minute talk, detailing their process and work. If you would like to watch my talk from the Social Design Exchange on April 23, 2018, my presentation begins at 1:03:53, or you can read the full publication here.
After assessing where American universities and specifically MICA are currently in terms of food waste limitation practices, the next step was to try and define what long-term success looks like. By defining an ultimate vision, I worked backwards to create a flexible action plan - determining the goals I could accomplish within in the next few months, as well as those to work toward in the next few years.
Vision: An American university system that prioritizes the limitation, reuse, and diversion of food waste.
• Develop a more ecological culture within collegiate institutions/universities
• Create systems that promote food donation and composting that are accessible and easy to navigate
• Share best practices amongst institutions, so universities can implement what works best for them
• Engage the MICA community (students, faculty, staff, admin) in design workshops
• Brainstorm/collaborate to find ways to create more ecological practices to ensure MICA’s habits align with the mission
• Begin prototyping and testing interventions based on brainstorming and collaboration
• Speak with MICA food and sustainability community members to learn what protocols and habits dictate current practices
• Attend MICA sustainability meetings to build relationships and learn what is currently happening on campus and who is acting on it
• Reach out and speak with other Baltimore universities’ sustainability departments to create points of comparison
• Meet with members of the greater Baltimore community who are working around food and food waste
I continued by observing MICA’s dining hall and catered events, and later engaged dining and catering staff and administrators, MICA professors and students, other Baltimore university sustainability administrators, and Baltimore City policy makers in comprehensive interviews to gauge their relationship to food and their thoughts on what was perpetuating food waste on college campuses.
Through this, three key drivers of food waste and inhibitors of food equity emerged:
1. Current resources to reduce food waste are not always used effectively
2. The campus culture around waste and sustainability fluctuates year to year based on people’s time and interest
3. There is a perception of liability; that if MICA donates edible food and someone falls ill, the university will be held accountable.
Working together with key stakeholders, we discussed how we could address these concerns. Through several brainstorming sessions, we worked through these challenges and sketched potential interventions.
Together we considered,
• How might we elevate food waste as an environmental and social justice issue at MICA?
• How might we design a holistic MICA dining experience that reduces food waste from preparation to consumption?
• How might we align the resources currently available within MICA through faculty and staff training to ensure reduced food waste on campus?
• How might we create a viable culture of sustainability at MICA that thrives amidst the rigor of an academic year?
The ideas generated in these sessions were inspired. I encouraged brainstormers to develop any and all potential interventions, and to vote on their favorite ideas with stickers.
Some of these ideas included:
• Having consistent training available for employees to address the inconsistent use of resources
• "Baking" food waste and sustainability education into the curriculum
• Integrating information sessions into staff training and orientation
• Making undergraduate and graduate orientation "zero waste" events
• Creating a full-time sustainability staff position
• Instituting a top down approach to support the grassroots activities on campus
• Having "Compost Champions" to foster a sustainable campus culture
• Creating a more robust sustainability culture on campus through events such as hosting a meal and discussion illustrating food disparity, having behind-the-scenes tours of the kitchen for students, or hosting a "Weigh Your Waste" event in the dining hall
• Creating a pay-it-forward program where MICA students can donate extra dining points to those in need
• Giving discounts to those who bring reusable containers to the dining hall for take-out or leftovers.
Simultaneously, I discovered several initiatives working to address this issue despite perceived liabilities. There are laws such as the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act and (the Food Donation Act of 2008 that work around any potential legal issues.
Programs working to address food equity exist in colleges across the country that use these laws as protection against potential liabilities - My Food Bridge connects campuses and nonprofits, the Food Recovery Network takes food from dining halls to share with community partners, Johns Hopkins’ Free Food Alert notifies the campus community when leftover food is available, and Share Meals is an app where students can share extra dining points with one another.
At the Social Design Exchange, I intended to prototype two ideas generated in the brainstorming sessions: having to-go containers available for leftover food and having multi-system waste bins at all events and in every building on campus.
For the first prototype, I placed baskets of to-go boxes on each table with food, however a few minutes later, our program director and I were pulled aside by the caterers and told that the caterers could not allow people to take the food outside the event.
When we asked further questions, the caterer pulled out a document that stated the following:
"In accordance with MD Health Department a regulation, any leftover food remains the property of Parkhurst and under law must be disposed of by the caterer and cannot be removed by the client."
It was disappointing that I could not follow through with one of my prototypes, though this note peaked my interest. Having spoken with the director of catering and attended other catered events, I knew that depending on the type of catering order, the caterers do not always stay for the entire event and just deliver the food. In those cases, I've experienced food being taken to common areas so MICA students, staff, and faculty can have the leftover food - so why is it different when the caterers are present?
For the second prototype, I set up the multi-system waste bins a hour or so before the event. Attendees used all of the bins provided - however, despite the signage detailing what belonged in each bin, they were not always used correctly.
Maybe this is somewhere where another idea could be enacted and the caterers could act as "compost champions", directing users to the proper bins. The outcome of this brief prototype gave me mixed feelings, but it brought me back to the question at the beginning of my project - how do protocols become culture? and how do you change the culture of a place to be more ecological?
Even making small changes like increasing composting visibility and making different waste systems available is not going to automatically change MICA's campus culture - like one of my interviewees said, "it takes a village to raise a child...it's the same thing with recycling and composting ...[reducing food waste] has to be a personal thing... something the company is willing to invest in", and something like that is a long-term change. So, moving forward, how do we make food waste a top priority that the university is willing to invest in?
If I had the opportunity to continue working on this project, I would like to expand the multi-system waste bin prototype and test several more of the ideas generated in the brainstorming sessions.
I would also like to pilot one of the pre-existing programs working on other campuses and continue working with MICA's Dining and Catering staff to dig deeper into the perceived liability around donating food and the protocols outlining why food cannot be taken from catered events.
Additionally, I would like to look into student food insecurity, a specific topic that arose in my discussions with MICA faculty and Johns Hopkins University staff. It is believed to be a highly under-reported issue, and starting with food equity within the university could be an important route.
Working on this project and through this process was compelling, provoking, and rewarding. The social design process is messy and challenging, and even more so when you are the sole person moving the work forward. As things in social design often do, plans did not go as originally intended, but nevertheless, they worked out in the end.
In order to have an American university system that prioritizes the limitation, reuse, and diversion of food waste, we need to make this something universities want to invest in, that supports their bottom line. There needs to be more cross-college communication - sharing best practices and making this issue something easy and desirable to navigate. Groups like B'CaUSE (Baltimore Colleges and Universities for a Sustainable Environment) are already starting to do this, but ultimately, intercollegiate collaboration around sustainability needs to grow on a national level in order to better address this wide-spread problem.