The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Waste not want not at the University of Tennessee

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Food for deep thought

KNOXVILLE On a Saturday afternoon, cheers (rare until recently) echo through Neyland Stadium. Guests in skyboxes watch the football game.

Platters line the buffet: Piled high with chicken wings. Packed with hotdogs. Brimming with bowtie pasta. Flush with alfredo.

It is nearing the end of the fourth quarter, and more than half of the food hasn’t been eaten. The Office of Sustainability will be by soon to transport these covered platters to the Culinary Institute to be recovered.

On Monday morning, Tyler White shakes his head as the crisp air escapes the walk-in freezer. The volunteers squeeze closer to peek into the cold, which is crowded with carts bearing these trays of football cuisine. Donned in aprons, gloves and masks, the team of five are about to sort and handle 4,000 pounds of unused food produced from the football game on Saturday.

Two tons is more than White anticipated, and the most unused food collected from a game so far. As program manager for the university’s Culinary Institute and also manager of campus initiative Food 4 All, it is his mission to recover unconsumed food on campus to be repurposed and redistributed in efforts of combating the issues of food waste and food insecurity.

As the leader responsible for this recovery, White reacts positively when dealing with the food from the football game: “All of that is one hundred percent usable. It’s not waste yet.”

For animal products, the types of food waste include agriculture production, post-harvesting handling and storage, processing, distribution and consumption. White obtains the food at the distribution stage, before its seven-day expiration date, and repurposes it to provide meals for food insecure students and community members. This food is never touched. He assures students that it is sanitary and repurposed within the seven-day expiration date so that it does not spoil.

“If there’s still something I can do with it, I’m saving it from being waste, and that’s our goal for Food 4 All.” White says, “Our slogan even says, ‘No waste, no hunger; no hunger, no waste.’”

His immediate thoughts on the food accumulated from the weekend are the wasted man-hours, wasted dollars, and number of animals that were killed. White informs the volunteers, “Every four wings is one chicken.” This puts into perspective the number of chickens that are killed for consumption, yet now remain on the carts in the walk-in freezer.

It is food waste that creates the consequences that drive greenhouse gas emissions. In perspective, if worldwide food waste was a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would rank third in the world — right behind the U.S. and China. In high-income countries, the causes of these emissions directly relate to the consumer.

In fact, about 108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States — nearly 40 percent of all the food in America. That is food left over from dinner plates, scraps from cooking, produce that has rotted on the counter or food thrown out because the expiration date was misread.

Scientists state that approximately 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by food waste, the most polluting of these gases being methane. Methane is produced when food sits and rots in the landfill. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, creating crop loss, wildfires, extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Scientist Mattias Eriksson compared the carbon footprint of food waste management options and discovered that throwing food in the trash is the worst option, but emissions can be diverted through food donation, controlled anaerobic digestion and incineration. Anaerobic digestion is a sustainable method to rid of food waste because it traps methane that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

As consumers, we assume the trash can is an infinite vat; however, this waste does not disappear but is released as a greenhouse gas. The average American wastes a little less than one pound of food a day. Instead of feeding another human, the waste is tossed away.

“It’s not just wasted food, it’s wasted money,” White says as he collects the trays from the football game to be cleaned and repurposed.

Tyler White’s initiative diverts this unused food away from landfills by creating meals for the Big Orange Pantry. These meals are provided to food insecure students at no cost. Surprisingly, one in three students at the university are food insecure. He believes in sustainable management of food because, not only will it provide for student welfare, but, thinking long term, it will help drive costs down.

Since August, White has saved six metric tons of food from outlets on campus: precisely 7,500 pounds of food from football games. The other pounds of food waste have come from the 6,000 meals untouched at the P.O.D. markets around campus. When it comes to leftover food, he is the first call.

As White puts the remaining chicken wings into a large stock pot, he mentions, “We create meals that students will love while being as innovative as possible.”

He will use the chicken wings to create chicken broth to be used for soups. The noodles and alfredo will be dished into plastic containers along with grilled chicken to be supplied at The Big Orange Pantry.

It is infeasible for him to divert this amount of food waste alone, however. Only about 25 percent is used for his initiative, Food 4 All. About 10 percent of the other unused food is composted by the Office of Sustainability or sent off campus. About 65 percent of the food stored in the freezer from the football game is collected by food banks like Second Harvest and Salvation Army — this is where the rescued hotdogs and buns will be given to the homeless.

Experts agree that reducing commercial food waste begins with recycling, donating and composting. However, change can begin at home by creating deliberate shopping lists, freezing food, composting remains and correctly reading expiration labels. These actions are the first step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a consumer level.

As Tyler White says, “It’s unused food, not waste.”

Find more facts and details at the following links:

Methane: A crucial opportunity in the climate fight

Feeding America: How We Fight Food Waste in the US

Food Waste in America in 2021 (1.8MB PDF)

Infographics and video of MIT Media Lab’s food cam

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