Green Right Now Reports

School cafeterias that want to reduce food waste are finding that taking away student’s trays encourages them to take less and waste less.

Food waste gets recycled at KSU, used as compost at the university's agricultural gardens.

Now a researcher at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., has found that posting a few basic reminders to not waste food results in…less food waste.

Kelly Whitehair, an assistant director at the dining center and doctoral graduate in hospitality management and dietetics, slapped up posters that said: Eat what you take. Don’t waste food.”

The signs were rudimentary, requiring no special slick marketing tricks, and they worked.

The reminders resulted a 15 percent reduction in food waste, according to Whitehair’s analysis.

“All it took to change behavior was a trigger that made students think twice about the topic of food waste before they started eating,” she said. “These were just posters I made at home on a word processor. This was not a fancy marketing campaign.”

Whitehair’s project was driven by the enormous volumes of food wasted in America — about 34 million tons annually. Her goal is to help university dining centers waste less and become more sustainable.

Her project included an examination of what students were wasting. Scrapings from the dining hall revealed that an average of 2 ounces of food was left on each tray, which added up to two tons of wasted food during the six-week study. Some students threw out as much as two pounds of food waste, while about one-third of students threw out nothing — demonstrating that zero-waste is a viable goal.

Whitehair also interview other dining hall managers, finding that schools where trays are no longer used were saving on water, energy and food costs.

She attributed the success of her project to cooperation between the department of hospitality and dining services staff, some of whom teach courses hospitality or dietetics courses.

“We’re extremely lucky that housing and dining services works so closely with the College of Human Ecology,” she said. “The partnership provides opportunities for students to conduct research at major facilities.”

Food waste from Kansas State University’s dining centers are composted and used at the “North Farm,” managed by College of Agriculture students, for erosion, field and greenhouse experiments.