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SUNY Oswego food recycling program stalls

Payne Horning
Students at SUNY Oswego want to donate the hot leftover food from the college's dining halls to an area food pantry.

Students at SUNY Oswego are trying to start a food recycling program that would donate leftovers from the college's dining halls to a nearby food pantry, but they're getting some pushback from the business that operates campus dining. 

Inside SUNY Oswego's Pathfinder Dining Hall, Manager Judi Phillips guides a small tour of students through the kitchen, offering a first-hand look at how Auxiliary Services, the college's dining contractor, cuts down on food waste. The key is a large, shiny metal box called the quick chiller that helps preserve leftovers from breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
SUNY Oswego Pathfinder Dining Hall Manager Judi Phillips shows how they save and later repurpose their leftovers using the quick chiller, which regulates food temperature.

"Yesterday, I had a lot of leftovers," Phillips said. "It [the quick chiller] was full, so I took the chicken, I opened up the pans, took off the saran, stuck it in the freezer. Within an hour it was down to the proper temperature, and I gave it to the salad people and they cut it up right then and there yesterday."

Philips says the management teams in each of SUNY Oswego's five dining halls meets daily to discuss how they can repurpose leftover food. But some food, like the hot dishes that are left out on the line after lunch and dinner, are typically thrown away. On this day, Kung Pao chicken, spaghetti and meatballs and other dishes remain on the line as Pathfinder closes at exactly 7:05 p.m. Phillips estimates these leftovers, which were discarded, could have fed about 10 people. SUNY Oswego students like freshman Cheick Traore, who is along on the tour, says that's a shame.

"There’s lots of food on the line that’s being thrown out." Traore said. "We can give that to some other people, people that need it."

Auxiliary Services already donates hundreds of prepackaged food items to the Oswego Salvation Army monthly. Yet, students want them to go further by donating hot leftovers as well. The initiative has support from the SUNY Oswego Sustainability Office. Director Jaime Adams says food recycling has been a pet project of hers since the office opened in 2012. 

"Food waste happens in a grand scale food production program. It’s going to happen," Adams said. "At this point, they haven’t had anything else to do with it. So, going into the waste stream is a natural result." 

Adams says the idea of recycling those hot leftovers started to pick up steam once students became interested. Senior Spencer Wieland brought the project to the student organization ENACTUS, Entrepreneurial Action by University Students, last year after working in one of the campus dining halls. 

"I noticed what their policies are versus what the actual practice is is much different," Wieland said. "They claim to have certain waste reduction policies, but they don’t seem to use them. I’ve witnessed multiple pans of food thrown out, food that’s perfectly donatable. So, that’s really the reason I wanted to get started with it."

The sustainability office has teamed with Wieland and student organizations like ENACTUS, the African Student Organization and others to bring the project to fruition. After several meetings with Adams and the students involved in the project, Auxiliary Services staff still have several concerns. 

"It's something that probably could happen, but I’m not comfortable with food that has been sitting on a line that we’ve been serving out of and could be cross contaminated," said Ruth Stevens, director of dining services.

Students note that there are laws shielding nonprofits from liability risks when it comes to donating food. Even with that protection, Stevens is still worried about making anyone sick, especially considering the logistics involved in getting that food from point A to point B. Can they rely on an ever-changing body of student volunteers to pick up the food each day and deliver it to the Salvation Army quickly enough? It's a problem the sustainability office has been working to address.

"To put a program like this together, get it up and running and then lose that student leadership is a concern for them and it would be a concern for us," Adams said. "Luckily for us,  we’ve already begun the planning phases where we could guarantee a certain number of students involved and scheduled each semester, every semester and that’s why it would be housed in our office."

Stevens said student participation broke down in a similar program in 2008. SUNY Oswego started a composting effort that involved students in collecting food scraps from dining halls. 

"The volunteers would show up some days and not show up others, so I would have food waste sitting inside the kitchen waiting for pickup," Stevens said.

The composting effort at SUNY Oswego did temporarily halt because of a lack of student involvement, according to a 2010 article in The Oswegonian. But the article attributes most of that drop off to the graduation of students who were part of the program. Grace Maxon with the college's Campus Composting Initiative said the project was rekindled last spring and still involves students. 

"I think with passionate students they are reliable," Maxon said. "The most recent project was successful and students are looking to start it up again with the nice weather." 

Discussion on the food recycling project between SUNY Oswego staff, students and Auxiliary Services have stalled. The company's general manager Mike Flaherty said he is open to the food recycling idea, but the "devil is in the details." Even if there is a reliable network of students, what food can be salvaged from the line? How will it be transported to the Salvation Army? Flaherty said they would not likely provide the necessary containers.

Further complicating the matter is the availability of the local Salvation Army's staff. The organization's director Heather Odom says they are always willing to take in donations, but their office closes at 3 p.m., when most of the SUNY Oswego dining halls stop serving lunch. With their limited staff, Odom is not sure they could have someone available after the lunch or dinner services when students would deliver the food.

Syracuse University and Mohawk Valley Community College already participate in a similar program.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
The company that runs SUNY Oswego's campus dining, Auxiliary Services, currently donates hundreds of prepackaged food items monthly to the Oswego Salvation Army. But many students want the company to go further by donating their hot leftovers as well.