Students weigh in on University food waste
In the wake of opulent holiday dinners, student activists suggest solutions for mediating food waste at the University.
Anastasia Hufham, Contributing Photographer
In the aftermath of the University’s holiday dinners last weekend, students voiced concerns about food waste and excess at such events. Through the pandemic, several student-led organizations have worked toward mitigating the issue of dining hall food waste on campus.
Yale is unique among other colleges and universities in having 14 dining halls — not counting Commons, which reopened this fall — which produce roughly 21 meals each week. Yale Hospitality has worked with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, or YHHAP, to distribute leftover food to New Haven residents in need. YHHAP is an umbrella organization with 11 projects under its wing, including Kitchen to Kitchen, a student-led group that focuses on rescuing uneaten food from dining halls and donating it to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, or DESK.
Yale Hospitality and Yale Dining work with Kitchen to Kitchen and other organizations to coordinate leftover food rescue so that on any given day, food will be delivered to local soup kitchens. Kitchen to Kitchen volunteers visit each dining hall once or twice a week after checking with dining hall managers that there is leftover food to donate. They then bring the food to DESK.
“Kitchen to Kitchen is a well-oiled machine and our volunteers are so eager to help us out,” said Emma Levin ’23, co-project lead for Kitchen to Kitchen. “Yale Hospitality has been eager to work with us and the people at DESK love when we arrive and bring in food. These student-led efforts are really wonderful, and I’m so happy to be able to work with such passionate students and staff at Yale.”
David Foster ’24, a sustainability liaison for Grace Hopper College, said that repurposing excess food is a central part of his work on campus.
He remembers leaving his first-year holiday dinner with leftover sushi to take home and refrigerate. On the way back to his suite, he passed a group of people sleeping in the cold outside.
“I remember thinking, how disgusting, how terrible,” Foster said. “It’s so fun to have these parties and there’s room to celebrate, and Yale Dining makes such wonderful food for us, but there is a certain limit when it goes from a fun celebration to gross excess.”
Yale Hospitality Associate Vice President Rafi Taherian, Yale Hospitality Sustainability and Sourcing Coordinator Betty Soosai, Yale Hospitality Director of Supply Chain and Sustainability Geraldine Remer and University spokesperson Karen Peart did not respond to requests for comment.
DESK is only open Sunday through Thursday, but before the pandemic, the Yale Community Kitchen distributed leftover dining hall meals on Friday and Saturday nights out of the United Church of Christ Parish House at 323 Temple St. The Yale Community Kitchen operates like a soup kitchen, but it is student-run and most of the food comes from Yale Dining.
Donating excess food is a worthwhile practice, Foster said, but eliminating excess food in the first place is the goal. The University has generated so much food excess that it is impossible for all of it to be effectively distributed to those in need, he added.
YHHAP Co-director Nellie Conover-Crockett ’22 concurred, noting that there have been times when Kitchen to Kitchen brought Yale Dining leftovers to DESK, but they were told that the soup kitchen already had too much food.
“Oftentimes, in cities like New Haven where we have a significant community with need but also a glut of nonprofits, restaurants, grocery stores and dining halls wanting to donate food, it’s really difficult to balance the need and supply that is available,” she said.
Conover-Crockett was previously involved in another YHHAP project, now on hiatus, called Project Homeless Connect. Before the pandemic, members would visit soup kitchens and speak with community members.
There, Conover-Crockett said she heard a wide variety of opinions about the University and its relationship to New Haven from a hunger and homelessness perspective.
“Some people had never been [to Yale] before and said the food was really good and thought it was fantastic that we had leftover food from the University, and others were bitter,” she said. “There were mixed sentiments about whether it’s fantastic that this kind of food is available or terrible that food is there in the first place because it’s the University’s presence.”
Foster suggested that the University might be more amenable to changes that are less costly, such as expanding the YHHAP Fast. The YHHAP Fast is the organization’s largest fundraiser, wherein students donate their Yale Dining meal swipes for a day. They indicate in the Student Information System that they are doing so and patronize local restaurants instead. Restaurants in turn donate some profit back to YHHAP.
The fast raises over $10,000 each year to fund YHHAP’s projects.
“If students told Yale that it was giving them something they don’t want,” such as excess dining hall food, Foster said, “they could put the money towards something else. Students have a better chance of success and could really have an impact if they ask Yale to cut down on something that they are providing.”
Students sometimes know ahead of time that they will not be eating in dining halls, Foster said, so they could indicate their absence in the Student Information System, as they do on the fast day. Yale Hospitality could then potentially predict more appropriate amounts of food.
Levin said that in the future, Kitchen to Kitchen hopes to expand to rescue food from Commons, Slifka Center Dining and other spaces on campus to further reduce food waste and continue donating to local soup kitchens.
In an ideal world, the University could eliminate the middleman of soup kitchens and allow community members in need to eat in dining halls, Conover-Crockett said. But expanding students’ dining options and avenues to communicate their dining habits might be a more feasible way to reduce food excess in the first place, especially since local soup kitchens are not always able to use leftovers themselves due to fluctuating supply and demand.
“Yale Dining works really hard, as much as we might want to critique them,” said Conover-Crockett. “We have such excess, and there’s so much need in the world, but there’s not a one-to-one solution. It’s a messy, messy issue and a long conversation that’s ongoing and hopefully will keep going.”
The Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project is a member project of Dwight Hall, which is located at 67 High St.