Wasted at the dining hall

By Brooke Leon and Rylan DeStefano

Let’s be real, as college students we love spending time in the dining hall, or as we like to call it here at Muhlenberg, the DHall. The DHall is a pretty social place, especially during the pandemic when face-to-face interactions were very limited on campus. However, the pandemic forced the DHall to change their meal plan to comply with the protocols of the CDC and the Allentown Health Bureau. The DHall got rid of many of their main “attractions” such as the salad bar, toppings for the ice cream, the communal peanut butter containers, and toaster ovens. Additionally, they got rid of walk-abilities (Asian stir fry) and the pizza Rustica. The students explained what has impacted them the most is the decrease in swipes, or meal credit, that all students must pay for if they live on campus. Due to the nature of the pandemic, the unlimited meal plan was taken away and students have to buy a certain number of meals for the semester.

Muhlenberg students head to the DHall because that’s the only place to use a swipe. Using a swipe gets you access to the dining hall where you can eat as much as you like–a meal costs the same whether you swipe in and eat one slice of pizza or stay for hours eating everything in sight. ” I typically sit in the [Dining Hall] because of how few swipes they allow this semester,” said Joel Hark ‘22, a varsity golf player. Sitting in the dining hall seems to be a commonality for most Muhlenberg students. Melissa Borker ‘22 likes “eating where the food is” as she knows she may not have as many opinions to browse from if she is still hungry. Borker also likes the social nature of the dining hall especially with her busy lifestyle on campus.  Zach Sager ‘23 believes in getting his money’s worth by taking advantage of the buffet options in the dining hall. “I think the ability to get as much or as little as you want allows you to get your money’s worth,” says Sager. Having food at our disposal allows us to choose how much or how little food we want which is helpful for busy college students. However, some of the students we spoke to said they want to get their money’s worth so they often end up taking more than they can eat and waste a lot of food. “I know my parents are spending a lot of money on the food. So if I don’t like something here, I always go back for more until I find something that I like.” said Alexis Daniel ‘23. “As I normally take more food than I can eat. Most of my food ends up being disposed of,” said  Borker. She also talked to us about how she tends to waste a lot of food. However, Sager believes he doesn’t waste that much food on a daily basis. “I think the small portions and the ability to go back for seconds kinda keeps food waste at a minimum,” he explains. Hark agrees with Sager. “Personally, [ I don’t waste that much food on a daily basis]. I try to finish all my plates. And feel bad throwing away uneaten food.” Interestingly, the gender of eating companions influences the amount of food people eat. A study of college students conducted by researchers from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Akron found that women tended to eat fewer calories when they had meals with males and men ate more when they had meals with women. When women eat with other women they find themselves eating more food, but men tend to eat less when they eat with other men. The study found that people played into the gender stereotypes that women shouldn’t eat a lot while men should have big appetites. The findings seem to be consistent with the students on our campus.

While it’s important for students to be mindful of the waste they produce, the reality is that dining halls create a lot of food waste regardless of how much students take on their plates. The Food Recovery Network (FRN) is an organization that works with students on college campuses across the country to collect leftover food from dining halls and catered events and deliver it to local community organizations. Erin Price, the Program Manager of FRN, believes that university dining halls are one of the biggest problems when it comes to food waste. “I would say the fact that you are preparing to make meals for so many students, you are prepping meals as if they will eat three meals a day, but that isn’t the case. Dining halls are expecting that everyone will come to the dining hall for three meals a day, but they forget that some students may eat out or not eat at the dining hall.” This is a big concern, and one of the reasons that food waste is so difficult to control in university dining halls. However, the purpose of the Food Recovery Network is to “recognize that it’s hard to plan ahead and know how much food needs to be produced.” The Food Recovery Network wants to provide a sustainable solution to dealing with surplus food and give those facing food insecurity or hunger access to food that would otherwise go to waste. Price thinks the reason we take more food than we want at grocery stores or dining halls is that we find it appealing or we’re worried that we won’t have enough food.“If I’m hosting a gathering I may overbuy food. It’s important to be mindful of what you are purchasing and how you are using it.”  Price said in the past five years consumers have become more cognizant and aware of the food they are consuming and wasting which results in a decrease in excess food waste. She also believes that the pandemic has emphasized food waste as many have been jobless, thus they are less likely to buy more food than they need.

Launching a successful Food Recovery Network program on a college campus is a collaborative process which means it could be a challenge for a campus community.  “You need to get support from the administration to even have a chapter and to become an official club on campus,” explains Price. “Touching base with folks who are making food at your dining hall every day and talking to them about how to put in a process for this issue. That makes sure that your time and effort to make this wonderful food doesn’t go to waste at the end of the day.” However, she truly believes that the most important part in starting a chapter is finding a nonprofit organization that can receive prepared food donations. There are various kinds of nonprofit organizations that are committed to feeding people, but they are not all able to receive prepared foods. For example, a food bank will mostly carry fresh produce and shelf-stable food rather than items that need to be frozen or refrigerated. Other complications in launching a successful program include the fact that transportation can be a barrier, but having students facilitate the donation process helps when time and resources are super limited.

“Food safety is the priority, and there are seven different steps that guide our students through,” explained Price. Large trays of food are collected from the dining hall, loaded into vehicles, and then delivered to the nonprofit partner agency. Even during the pandemic, FRN continued to operate. “It was very hard, and it sometimes wasn’t safe,” said Price. This shows that the students helping are practically experts working at FRN, and they can make an impact with this organization. While asking Price how to make an impact in this organization, she explained that to help this organization, you need to become educated on environmental topics, as well as, “make sure our chapters can participate and advocate to help solve environmental and hunger [issues]”. Price explained that the most impactful part of the donation process is “the beauty of having students involved.”

According to Price another way to ensure that food on campus doesn’t go to waste is to distribute it to students through a community pantry. “I think it would be a great option,” said Hark. “Sometimes it’s not about paying the tuition, but sometimes it’s about the smaller things like buying snacks. It can make people have financial issues. So having a cabinet for people would be awesome.” Interestingly enough, Muhlenberg does have a community pantry. The other day, we decided to go to find it. But after wandering around the lower level of Seegers Union we could not find the community pantry. It left us wondering, what would happen if access to food wasn’t something we needed to hide, what if we all just shared our food out in the open to both reduce food waste and feed those who are hungry?