Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2021

Free food initiative reduces waste on campus

By MORGAN OME | April 13, 2017

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COURTESY OF NEMO KELLER The initiative helped to minimize food waste from SOHOP events.

Food left over from events on campus is often thrown out, creating tons of waste each year. To address this problem, organizers of the Free Food Waste Remediation Initiative have launched an email system to alert students of leftover free food.

Nemo Keller, who graduated last fall, has spent this semester developing the project. She and Leana Houser, the Homewood recycling manager, identified food waste at Hopkins as a problem.

The program is still in its preliminary stages, but the Keller and Houser conducted a trial run on April 5 during SOHOP.

They initially thought of donating the leftover food, but timing, transportation, health concerns and storage made this plan impractical. Instead, they worked to develop a way of reducing waste while keeping the food on campus.

“We got the idea of doing these notifications — email blasts, essentially — to tell students when and where there was available food... hopefully mitigating food waste while also making students happy and providing the service of giving them extra free food,” Keller said. “Who doesn’t want free food?”

Keller created a survey for event organizers to determine whether they would be receptive to donating their leftover food. Out of 56 organizers, close to 70 percent thought there was a need for a program to reduce food waste after catered events. They reported that they end up wasting 15 percent of the total food that they order.

She then worked with the Student Government Association (SGA) to figure out what students thought about food waste. Eight hundred students responded to a survey she conducted, and more than 95 percent said that they wanted to receive free food after events and that they saw a need for a program to reduce food waste.

The initial idea for the program was brought up by Noah Erwin, who graduated in 2016. He thought of creating an app to alert students about food leftover from events. Erwin, Keller and Houser talked during the fall of 2016 to develop the program.

During the SOHOP trial run, students who were on the email list received a message informing them about the type and quantity of food available, where they could find that food and whether containers for leftovers were available.

During the pilot program, there were 624 students on the email list. As of press time, over 700 students have joined the list.

At SOHOP registration tables, Keller noted that there were initially nine full pizzas, eight two-liter bottles, five containers of salad, eight full bagels and two containers of cream cheese left over. Twenty-five minutes after she sent an email alert only a little salad remained.

At a lunch event, 89 percent of the sandwiches, 87.5 percent of the fruit and 77 percentage of the pasta salad were eaten instead of wasted after students arrived. Keller also recorded student feedback following the SOHOP pilot.

“100 percent of people who tried to participate in any of the events said that they thought the program should be scaled campus-wide to all catered events,” she said. “We had 120 people reply to that survey.”

Going forward, Keller and Houser are hoping to conduct more pilot programs to determine the best method for reducing food waste and alerting students about free food. During the SOHOP trial run, Keller obtained a schedule in advance from event organizers and sent the email alerts herself.

However, Keller emphasized that they are in the beginning stages of implementation and that they currently do not have a definite procedure for coordinating food waste efforts with event organizers.

Houser is optimistic that the program will continue to be successful in the future but said that adjustments may need to be made along the way.

“We may have to tweak how much time the food is available and what event planners will do,” she said. “Are we going to use an app? An email distribution system? What are the logistics of getting the information out?”

In addition, they are looking into setting up a free food pantry or fridge for storing leftovers that are not initially picked up by students.

Keller acknowledged that students often want more notices more in advance about when free food will become available so that they can adjust their own schedules.

However, she noted that the program must also consider the concerns of the event organizers.

“You have to understand that for an event organizer, the most important part is there is enough food for the guests and that the guests aren’t disturbed,” she said. “The whole program relies on the fact that we don’t bother event organizers. If they see this as a burden, they would much rather throw out the food.”

Keller pointed out the environmental impact of food waste. When food is disposed of in landfills, it can contribute to the creation of methane, a greenhouse gas.

She said that reducing food waste is good for the environment and requires the efforts of all students.

“Each individual has a responsibility when it comes to food waste,” Keller said. “When we all individually waste food, collectively it adds up really quickly.”

Houser added that, while food waste remediation efforts are beneficial, students should also make an effort not to create waste in the first place.

“Eliminating the generation of waste from the beginning is going to have much greater environmental and health impacts than recycling or composting it,” she said. “There are so many inputs — energy, greenhouse gas emissions. So the biggest footprint that food has is all upstream.”

Divya Korada, a sophomore, praised the program. She is a member of Real Food Hopkins, a group that seeks to bring local, sustainable and humane food to campus.

“As a student, it’s just nice to have access to free food,” she said. “It’s cool to be able to get alerts so if you’re hungry or want to get good food, you can stop by. From a sustainability perspective, it’s a good initiative. I’m surprised we didn’t have it before.”

She noted that reducing food waste requires a conscious effort on behalf of all individuals, especially those organizing events.

“People who run student events should be mindful of the amount of food they order and try to estimate it more accurately,” she said. “They should try to have a backup plan for what will happen if they do have a lot of food leftover.”

Sophomore Rose Ole-Kuyan thought the program was a good idea but could see the potential for some issues. Ole-Kuyan sees the benefit of reducing food waste, but worries that the initiative could lead to disorderly crowds and tension between competitive students.

She is also concerned that free food notifications may distract students.

“If people are getting alerted in class, then they may pretend to go to the bathroom, go get the free food and then come back,” she said. “The [leftover] food could also just go to people in the vicinity, like security guards and staff, not necessarily Hopkins students.”

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