Food Waste

How Does Redeemer Set the Table?

Year after year, Redeemer students have been working at pushing our campus towards a posture of sustainability. As an institution, there are always ways that we can improve our relationship with food and food waste, despite all of the steps that we’ve taken already. 

I spoke with Alyssa Zilney, a Redeemer student who graduated in 2019. During her time at Redeemer, she spent two years as the president of the SEEDS club (Students Educating Everyone about Domestic Sustainability). Her passion for sustainable eating and food systems that benefit all parties began while sitting at communal one day in first year. She noticed how many garbage bins of food waste came out of every communal meal, and wondered, “How much of our food doesn’t even make it to the table?”

After this, Zilney and her peers started to take action. For example, once composting was introduced on campus, they made space in the community garden for a compost pit, asking maintenance to tend to it once a week. 

With these students’ encouragement, the school began to look into the purchase of a commercial composter. A third-party company was hired to assess how much waste was being produced at Redeemer, looking at communal dinners, dorms, and the academic building. The results were pretty staggering: in 2018, Redeemer University was producing waste at a rate just shy of 120 metric tonnes per year. 72% of this waste ends up in landfills, according to the 2018 assessment. These results may be out of date, but increasingly high enrollment rates in the last number of years coupled with no real long-term change in the waste system in Redeemer’s dorms might push these statistics further to the extreme. 

What was the benefit of performing this waste audit? Following these results, Redeemer purchased four totes that are now used in back-of-house food services, redirecting large amounts of organic waste. Davidson Environmental was hired to pick up the totes twice a week. 

Doreen Gringhuis, Director of Campus Services, gave me a tour behind the counters of ReFresh. Along with Maggie Bullata, the General Manager of Sodexo Food Services at Redeemer, Gringhuis pointed out several new measures that have been put in place. The new LeanPath system requires all food services employees to record, by weight, all organic waste, noting the cause of its waste and including an option for the food to be recycled into another product when possible. This system trains staff to be more aware of what they are personally wasting, a habit that carries over into lives at home, as well. In addition to reducing waste, this system also informs the staff of how much money is being lost due to wasted food. 

Food services also works with Compassion Ministries, donating groceries, produce, and ingredients to those in need. In an effort to address the issue of waste as a whole, all containers and utensils at the new take-out version of communal are compostable, and students have the option of choosing which components of the meal they’d like. 

Redeemer’s implementation of new policies for food services is a step in the right direction, but what about food after it reaches the hands of the students? In the last number of years, the SEEDS club has orchestrated a composting system for organic waste in student housing, handing out small compost bins and picking them up every week. Once the SEEDS club picks up the bins, they dispose of the organic waste and turn it weekly.

Joshua Sloots, one of the current leaders of the SEEDS club, told me about a project students have been trying to get off the ground for several years now: the purchase of a commercial composter at Redeemer. This machine is a large cylinder that takes the compost in on one end. Over the course of thirty days, it heats it up and causes it to decompose rapidly, producing soil out the other end. Commercial composters are fully enclosed, so they don’t have much of a smell. The resulting soil could even be a source of income for Redeemer. Most other large institutions have a commercial composter, but these machines are costly. 

Working towards getting a commercial composter is only one of this group’s goals. Included in the 2018 waste audit was the following statement: “Redeemer University College’s management team are committed to improving their waste diversion rate in order to minimize the amount of materials disposed to landfill.” Students have continued to push the institution to act on this commitment, suggesting the introduction of a small ($10-$15) environmental fee included in student fees that could be put towards purchases and causes such as a commercial composter, as well as encouraging proper use of the composting system on campus. 

Ideally, a waste audit is performed every year in order to determine how much progress has been made based on the previous audit’s feedback. Unfortunately, a second waste audit has yet to happen, leaving those invested in furthering our sustainability with somewhat outdated statistics to work with, as mentioned previously. Sloots suggests that a second waste audit would be a realistic place to start. Other actions that can be taken may include picking up conversations where they were left around a commercial composter and environmental fee, being intentional with building more gardens, and implementing more consistent signage around recycling and garbage cans on campus. 

What’s at the root of this desire for more? Alumnus Zilney puts it this way: “Jesus says, ‘Come to the table.’ If the table is central, shouldn’t we put a little more effort into how we set it?” She continues, “It’s not all about doing this for the Earth; nature is triumphant and resilient. It’s us that we’re harming by not letting ourselves have these right relationships.”

Largely, this work of righting our relationship with creation is left in the hands of Redeemer’s students. During the 2020-2021 school year, many compost bins mysteriously disappeared and the SEEDS club had to purchase replacements. After picking up those bins and disposing of the waste, club members have noted that there is significantly less organic waste coming from all of the student housing than would be expected. This suggests that not all students are placing all organic waste in the compost bins. The waste audit backs this up, reporting that 27% of regular trash was made up of organic waste like food scraps and vegetable trimmings. In 2018, that would have been just over 32 metric tonnes of organic waste that could have been composted. 

Intentionally aiming to better our relationship with food may be inconvenient, but it is an act of worship. We are called to move from a posture of feeling entitled to convenience to loving our Creator more than ourselves; how might we, as individuals in the student body, lean into that calling?