Exploring Food Waste and Food Insecurity at UVM

By Caylin McKee
UVM Dining Sustainability Manager

The United Nations estimates that one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year goes to waste. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kilograms a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kilograms a year.


At the same time, food insecurity and hunger persist, especially among vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. There are multiple levels of food insecurity, including anxiety about a shortage of food or not being sure where your next meal will come from. Hunger is a part of food insecurity and happens when people report multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. According to the USDA, 13 percent of all Vermont households are food insecure, and 6 percent of all Vermont households are food insecure and experience hunger.

At UVM, about half of the undergraduate population is on a meal plan, the majority choosing our “unlimited” meal plan. Hunger may seem like a distant issue on campus, however, campuses around the country are recognizing a need.

National and state-wide data scarcely separates the college student demographic. However, a recent report titled Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students sheds more light on this national issue. The executive summary states, “Being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. Among the respondents from four-year colleges, 43 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.”

Sustainable Food Practices at UVM

Since 2007, UVM Dining has partnered with Eco-Reps to measure post-consumer food waste at Redstone Unlimited dining hall. We set up a scale and ask students to separate their waste into either the inedible, edible, or liquids bin. The goal of the event is less about getting a perfect data set and more about raising awareness about the multi-faceted issue of food waste and each individual’s role.

The Eco-Reps program mission is to “cultivate environmental responsibility by training student leaders to promote sustainable practices at the university and encourage environmentally responsible behaviors among peers.” The impact of small changes in individual lifestyle is an important focal point of the program. Food waste fits well in this sphere because consumer behavior is a big part of the issue.

How to Help Address Food Insecurity and Food Waste on Campus

The relation between food waste and food security is not usually direct. The food left on a plate by a student at Redstone Unlimited likely could not have fed a community member at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf if that student had served themselves less. However, the established systems and culture that allow us to recognize this waste as an inevitable part of the dining experience continues to fuel that flawed system. For this reason, it was encouraging to see a downward trend of food waste at Redstone Unlimited continue.

UVM has begun to look into food insecurity on our campus. UVM Dining Dietitian Nicole Rohrig recently began meeting with a group of campus and community stakeholders, including representatives from Hunger Free Vermont, Student Financial Services, Center for Health & Wellbeing, and the Campus Kitchens student club. This working group is in the early stages and is initially planning to quantify the presence of food security within the UVM student body.

If you’re interested in helping address hunger or food waste on campus, please contact us at uds@uvm.edu.


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