How much does food waste awareness reduce the problem?

Posters don’t drive big drops in food waste.
By: | Issue: April/May, 2019
April 17, 2019
Food waste

An education campaign highlighting the amount of food waste generated by all-you-can-eat dining halls convinced students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to throw out slightly—but only slightly—less food last fall.

The university considerably reduced waste after going trayless about 10 years ago, and food services wanted to take another big step. But posters, signs and napkin inserts encouraging conservation in one dining hall generated just a 4 percent drop in food waste—an average decrease of 3.45 grams per student, says Brenna Ellison, an associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics who studied the campaign.

“That’s pretty typical with information campaigns,” Ellison says. “For instance, calorie labeling in restaurants also has a modest effect. But we did see changes in attitude. Before, people thought they had no control over the waste produced and that dining services didn’t care.”

Many universities rely on all-you-can-eat service to draw students to dining halls, Ellison says. Illinois is now tracking the impact of switching from round plates to oval plates that look the same size, but have a smaller surface area.

Dining halls can also make bigger changes such as eliminating all-you-can-eat plans and self-service.

In the first approach, students are charged a la carte prices for the food items they choose. In the second, dining hall employees serve more measured
portions of food.

Kitchens at the University of Illinois track costs and consumption with specialized LeanPath software. It helps food services staff adjust procurement and food prep to reduce food waste. Staffers also compost and recycle to keep waste from landfills.

“We’re making lots of investments in reducing waste,” Ellison says. “The one area we’re less in control of is students’ plate waste. We want to affect that.”