NAU's Food Recovery Program: Gateway to a Zero-Waste Campus

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NAU Executive Chef Tim Cunningham uses LeanPath software to reduce waste.

Competition in the kitchen usually involves cooking prowess, but “back of house” staff at Northern Arizona University (NAU) are trying to outdo one another in a much different category: reducing food waste.

The daily quest takes on a higher level of significance now that NAU has signed on to participate in the EPA Food Recovery Challenge. This self-reporting program requires participants to measure and then set goals to reduce food waste. “Achieving zero waste on campus is one of the most sought-after goals of campus sustainability,” said Campus Sustainability Manager Bryan McLaren, citing the university’s climate action plan.

According to McLaren, zero waste is a goal toward which the university continues to make meaningful progress. Signing up for the EPA program was just one more way to demonstrate NAU’s commitment. “NAU is ahead of the game,” McLaren said. “While other universities are asking basic questions about preconsumer food composting, we’ve just reached 150,000 pounds at our compost facility.” Much of the material that goes into compost would otherwise end up at a landfill. Instead, the compost can be used on campus and in the community while reducing waste and CO2 emissions.

About 1,000 pounds of compost can be generated each day at the Hot Spot, one of two major dining halls on the NAU campus. Food waste comes from overproduction, spoilage, expiration, and trimmings. And the trimmings can pile up. Cucumber ends, onion peels, broccoli stalks and other trimmings that result from meal preparation are weighed and tracked using equipment and software from LeanPath, a company that works with the food industry to reduce waste. Some of the vegetable trimming are boiled and filtered to go into pho, a Vietnamese soup, and the stock is also used for stir-fry dishes and fried rice. This amounts to more than 157 pounds of vegetable trimmings being used first and then composted.

To keep track of these types of savings, McLaren is aggregating numbers from LeanPath and other sources on campus to report NAU’s progress through EPA’s online Waste Wise tool. “As a starting point I think we can get close to 15 percent” of food waste being diverted from landfills, he said, pointing out that, with recycling, NAU could reach a much higher percentage toward its ultimate goal. “Food recovery is our gateway to a zero-waste campus,” he said.

 --Adapted from an article appearing in NAU News