Last month, the Oberlin Review, the student newspaper at the liberal arts college, gave a loudspeaker to a group of beleaguered students. Some of them, the piece explained, felt that the foreign food being served at dining halls wasn't as authentic as they would have liked. And that wasn't okay. The subpar sushi rolls, General Tso's chicken, and Banh Mi sandwiches, the students argued, were offensive — they were an insensitive form of cultural appropriation that needed to be addressed immediately.
The issue was widely mocked in the media. The New York Post didn't hide its disdain. Nor did the Atlantic, which concluded that the school's leaders were doing its students a disservice by not pushing back on their "highly dubious and wildly unpopular beliefs." Fredrik deBoer, meanwhile, who teaches at Purdue University and writes for The Observer, made his point pretty clearly on Twitter:
an undergrad at a $50K/year liberal arts college berating cafe workers making $12/hour in the name of social justice on a human face forever
— Fredrik deBoer (@freddiedeboer) December 19, 2015
There is naturally little sympathy for the plight of top-tier college students who lose sleep over the authenticity of their bottomless buffets. But there also seems to be very little public concern for an actual, real, non-politically correct problem with college campus cafeterias that fewer people are paying attention to: waste.
"Hopefully, if you dined with us in Stevenson [Dining Hall], there would be one thing in every meal that you would want to eat," Michile Gross, the director of business operations and dining services at Bon Appetit, the food service provider on contract with Oberlin, told the Review in explaining the plethora of choices.
The word hopefully here is the key, because it's hard to predict whether students will lap up the food that is put in front of them (especially when tastes are as fickle as they seem to be today). And that question mark has been producing piles of leftover food that end up in the trash, much to the chagrin of the companies providing it, and the mouths it could help to feed.
The average college student, thanks in large part to campus meal services, generates more than 14o pounds of food waste per year, according to Recycling Works, a government-funded recycling program in Massachusetts. In all, the group estimates roughly 22 million pounds of food are thrown out at colleges each year.
"College campus cafeterias want to provide a wealth of options, but, because of that, are inherently unpredictable," said Laura Toscano, who is the director of The Campus Kitchens Project, a non-profit committed to alleviating food waste at colleges around the country. "You never know how many students are going to show up on any given day or how much they're going to like the food."
"This is a really big issue, and it's in everyone's best interest to fix it," she added.
The Campus Kitchens Project, which was founded in 2001, aims to do just that. The non-profit partners with student volunteers, dining service companies (like Bon Appetit), and local communities to make use of all, or least a sizable portion, of the uneaten food. And it has seen its influence grow considerably over the years.
Just this past fall, Campus Kitchens, which now works with 49 schools around the country, reached an exciting milestone: The program quietly celebrated the recovery of 5 million pounds of food since its inception, along with the resulting 2.5 million meals the reinvigorated leftovers has helped produce for those in need over the years. The marker is likely to be the first of many: the project is currently on track to recover more than a million pounds of food per year going forward.
"I hope this inspires more people to help," said Toscano.
The good news is that there's reason to believe the efforts are nudging others to act.
The Food Recovery Network, which was founded in 2011 by a student at the University of Maryland and has since ballooned into a national program with more than 100 chapters around the country, was partly inspired by The Campus Kitchens Project. And they aren't alone—universities, increasingly conscious of the problem, are working to solve it too. Bucknell, which found that its cafeterias were producing "significant quantities" of food waste, is among several institutions that have taken it upon themselves to study their own contribution to the issue.
There is, however, a sense that turning the current college food system into a better version of itself, while laudable, might not be going far enough.
"The problem is the way it's set up," said Jonathan Bloom, a food waste expert and the author of the book 'American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food.' "By and large, schools offer all you can eat cafeterias, where students can go at anytime of the day. By definition you're going to have too much food."
Bloom points to the average amount of food wasted per person as evidence. In the United States, roughly half a pound of food is wasted per person per day, but at many schools, he says, the same amount is wasted per meal. He believes an a la carte system, where students pay as they eat, would be more efficient.
No matter the fix, it's clear the kids at Oberlin, preoccupied with the authenticity of their cafeteria meals, aren't helping. In fact, it's precisely this sort of sensitivity that is creating a paralyzing conflict of interests, which diminishes the sales pitch of less wasteful meal programs.
"There's been an arms race on college campuses to increase and enhance the number of food offerings," said Bloom. "Each school wants to brag about their college food service, largely to win over fussy new students. But that boasting comes at a cost."
"The more options there are, the more food waste there will be," he added. "And that's exactly what has been happening."