Designing the Waste out of the Dining Hall: Yale-NUS’ Answer to Food Wastage

Opinion

story | Xie Yihui, Contributing Reporter

photo | Elesin Teo

 

There are two sides to dining halls at Yale-NUS College — one with the steel containers neatly lined up with vegetables and meat drizzled with sauces, the other with soiled crockery carelessly tossed and food wastage abound. The Yale-NUS dining experience has its darker side. After talking to multiple stakeholders involved in managing food wastage, I realized that addressing this issue is often complicated and costly at the administrative level, and there are numerous simple actions we can take as individuals to mitigate food wastage.

According to Muhammad Ibrahim Hussein (Moh), the manager of Sodexo’s catering service in Yale-NUS, about 400 kg of food waste is thrown into the bin by diners every month and an additional 1700 kg of food is thrown out without even reaching a diner’s plate. Raquelle Yu ’21, who is a member of the Food Wastage Team within i’dECO, the sustainability advocacy student organization, believes that overproduction is a major source of food wastage. She pointed out the large amount of food remaining after every dining hall meal.

Mr. Moh admits that overproduction is inevitable because Sodexo is obliged to have a variety of dishes, even at the very last minute of service. While I understand that many students’ schedules do not allow them to come early for meals, it is indulgent to have 16 dishes at every moment of service. Ensuring that students with different dietary restrictions are accommodated, we can afford to have slightly fewer options. 

However, Mr. Moh reassures that Sodexo has implemented various strategies to minimize food wastage. According to him, Sodexo has almost eliminated food wastage in the kitchen, for instance, by purchasing pre-cut vegetables. They also make sure that the food looks presentable to encourage students to consume the dishes, thereby minimizing pre-consumption wastage.

Moreover, Sodexo is collaborating with the Dean of Students’ (DoS) Office to reduce post-consumption food wastage. Muhammad Erfaan, an executive at the DoS Office, shared how he uses a data analysis tool called Leanpath WasteWatch to track statistics like the number of meal taps to get a better picture of how much food is wasted.

According to Mr. Moh, since WasteWatch started in October 2018, there has been a 32% reduction — or 9900 kg — in food wastage. Post-consumer wastage saw a reduction of 700 kg, while pre-consumer wastage saw a reduction of 9200 kg.

Another strategy to consider is the closure of one dining hall during weekends. According to Sodexo, student turnout for brunch is 30-40% less than the average of breakfast and lunch during weekdays. Opening all three dining halls not only leads to food wastage, but also wastes energy spent on food preparation.

Yet, just like many other strategies to reduce food wastage, the closure of one dining hall would affect multiple aspects of college life. Mr. Erfaan admits that “there are a lot of different factors to consider, particularly, our students’ satisfaction and ensuring our approach is in line with the Yale-NUS residential model, which consists of integrating living, learning and dining and at the same time inculcating a sense of residential college identity within our students.”

It is understandable that DoS Office prioritizes students’ overall wellbeing over pushing the agenda of environmental sustainability. Indeed, sustainability is one of the many goals that DoS Office and Sodexo are working towards, and often conflicts with their overarching functions of the College. As suggested by i’dECO’s Dining Hall Report in 2015, ensuring the representation of environmental concerns at higher levels of decision making in Yale-NUS requires an Office of Sustainability as well as clear guidelines to monitor College operations. There could also be a stronger voice from environmentally conscious students. Coco Oan ’22, the President of i’dECO said that when we are more proactive in expressing concerns to the Yale-NUS administration, we can influence higher levels of decision making.

While pushing for institutional reform can go a long way in reducing food wastage, our attitude towards food is the fundamental cause of food wastage. We are so detached from the manufacturing and production of food that we are oblivious to the labor, energy and time needed to produce it. Student organizations and the school administration should cultivate a sense of appreciation for food and an awareness of our privilege.

The administration sometimes treats us more like hotel guests than students. In the case of a dining hall closure, walking to another Residential College takes no more than a few minutes. We are not here to be served, but to learn how to develop our thinking and contribute to society and the environment. Walking a few more minutes to another dining hall is the least that we can do.

Reducing food wastage need not be a grand gesture — we can quickly adopt some simple steps. Organizers of events with catered food can indicate the expected turnout in an event form, and Sodexo can then produce the appropriate amount of food. We can also take only the amount of food we will consume at meals to reduce post-consumption wastage. 

No doubt that the impact each individual makes is minimal, but together, we can make a major impact.

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