If at least one person is inspired to be a more conscious consumer when it comes to generating food waste, this briefing has done its job. By holding ourselves accountable for our own decisions, as a commutative force, we can significantly decrease the amount of food waste that Columbia Dining generates, increase the amount of food donated to communities in need, and contribute to creating a more environmentally sound institution and living more econscious lives. It all starts with shifting our mindsets.
Columbia Dining is home to the celebrities of the food world: buttery biscuits, poke bowls, and of course the infamous buffalo chicken wrap. Stepping foot into one of Columbia’s six dining halls is a uniquely glorious moment for all incoming freshmen, and I remember it quite vividly. A symphony of growling stomachs filled the campus as the eyes of incoming students scanned the seemingly endless supply of desserts lined up on marble countertops. As the weeks rolled by, the symphony had softened, the thrill of entering the dining hall had gestated, and suddenly, I found myself mechanically scooping quinoa onto a plate that I had no desire to finish. It became habitual to ravenously grab desserts off of trays, that ten minutes later would be thrown away—untouched. For you see, sometime between my first day at Columbia University and the late second semester, I had become a culprit for generating food waste. As a Sustainable Development Major, embarrassment was an understatement. How could I strive to help the environment while subsequently generating more food waste than I ever had in my entire life? In a generation filled with young climate activists, you would expect the opposite: a deflating amount of food waste and conscious decisions making regarding portion control. However, the devastating reality lies in the non-intentional generation of food waste which has become largely inescapable at colossal institutions.
Attempting to galvanize the Columbia student body into action, Columbia EcoReps, —the largest sustainability group on campus— held a plate-scraping event with stomach-dropping statistics. On March 7th, members from the Conscious Consumption committee of EcoReps set up a table near the entrance of the John Jay dining hall and scraped students’ plates into a bag. After about three and a half hours, 360 pounds of solid waste—equivalent to the weight of a standard upright piano— was collected. Given that 1,245 Columbia students swiped their IDs during this time frame, not only did they satisfy their hunger with a nutritious meal, but collectively students ended up tossing out 0.08 pounds of nonfood waste (i.e.cups, compostable napkins) and 0.2 pounds of solid waste—crusts of sandwiches, apple cores, leftover tater tots, and untouched portions of their meal. At first glance, these statistics may seem dismissible, but a financial burden strikes as a crucial question formulates: Who is paying for all of this wasted food?
From these statistics, it is estimated that one Columbia student, on average, generates over four pounds of food waste per week, equivalent in mass to over seven commercial sandwiches. From John Jay Dining alone, these results estimate that 12,805.71 pounds of food are wasted every month. This roughly costs $101.7 an hour. This price is demanding, yet completely fair to charge students who—as the saying goes—are putting their money where their mouth is. Reducing food waste would undeniably contribute to an immense reduction in the cost of future meal plans, a rate that currently sits at $3,180 for all first-year students. Without a collective initiative for conscious consumption, a continuum of food and metaphorical dollar bills will enter the waste bins each and every day.
Despite these eminently distressing, yet benchmark statistics, sustainability has become a rising priority for many institutions and their environmental goals. Most notably in the title “Sustainable Columbia,” Columbia University aims to take a multifaceted approach to sustainability, ensuring that the entirety of solid waste from each dining hall is given to a third-party composter where it is sorted and handled properly and all untouched food is donated. Columbia University wears its Green Restaurant Certification as a badge of honor, demonstrating the institution’s commitment to sustainable purchasing. By prioritizing energy-efficient equipment such as the InSinkErator that “[...] reduces food scraps sent to landfill by 85%” and purchasing 56% of their food “[...] within 250 miles of the Morningside campus”, Columbia challenges the systematic distortion that large institutions are to blame for inconceivable food waste. Instead, the lengths to which Columbia has implemented eco-conscious acts are seen in every nook and cranny of its kitchens. This leaves a key proponent of sustainability, and the name of the EcoRep committee behind this entire study, in the hands of the student body: conscious consumption. So the next time you find yourself in one of Columbia’s dining halls, I hope that you can reflect on this article, take a second to think, and hopefully set down that scoop of quinoa that we both know that you have no intention of eating.