URBANA — When the U.S. secretary of agriculture visited campus last month, he challenged students at the University of Illinois to do their part to help prevent food waste.
It's a familiar stump speech these days for Tom Vilsack, given that the USDA estimates up to 133 billion pounds of food — or $161 billion worth — winds up in landfills each year.
People need to learn about the issue in order to help solve it, Vilsack told students here.
Little did he know how much the UI was already doing.
Over the past few years, data collected by the university's housing division has helped scale back on food waste — rare in campus dining halls. This school year alone, the university expects to divert 678,255 pounds of food from the landfill, worth a combined $692,809. That's 4 percent of a food budget of $17.3 million.
So how did they do it?
"We started measuring it," said Kelly Boeger, the UI's menu management dietician.
The device responsible — LeanPath — doesn't look like much. It's just a monitor with a touch screen and a scale. But the value isn't in the equipment; it's in the data.
Every piece of food made by university housing that is thrown out before students put it on their plate is now tracked. Chefs weigh the waste, select the type of food on the touch screen and note why they're throwing it out.
Immediately, a value appears on the screen, so the workers can see how much money just went down the drain.
"We now understand what's being wasted, set goals and engage our employees to meet them," Boeger said.
Stats are kept on each unit of each dining hall. The university holds contests to see who can divert the most food waste, Boeger said.
Take pudding and spreads for bread (jam, jelly, peanut butter), for example. For years, students were passing these by and housing employees were shoveling them into the garbage. Before LeanPath, no one was keeping track, so the amount of waste went unnoticed.
Chefs also started to realize just how much food was left at the end of dining hours. They noticed late in the meal how refills of food were going uneaten, so they began using smaller pans.
The program has brought food waste down to 344,559 pounds each year, worth $425,735 or about 2.46 percent of the overall budget.
And that's just "pre-consumer" (before it's on someone's plate) waste. The university also estimates it has reduced the amount of food students throw out — by 9,456 pounds each day — by simply eliminating trays.
At least 25 percent of the food served in campus dining halls is locally purchased, with much of it grown on the student sustainable farm. More and more, UI students take great pride in that, said Associate Director of Housing and Dining Services Dawn Aubrey.
The year-to-year turnover of students living in university housing — it's mostly freshman — means officials have to re-educate a new class each year. That part has gotten easier and easier, with Aubrey noticing that each year's new crop is increasingly environmentally conscious and caring about food waste.
"The current students think, 'If I can make the world better, I'll be better off for it,'" Aubrey said.