Extra food finding new life

Dining Services donation program benefiting Cleveland non-profit

Imagine a chicken nugget. It takes a nearly Odyssey-level journey through the cafeteria from freezer to oven to metal serving tray. Hundreds of people will see it and its breaded peers on display. They get piled onto a plate, barbeque sauced and ketchupped, and then they meet the final judgment: to be eaten or to be trashed. But for the food that doesn’t cross the threshold of the serving counter, a different fate lies ahead.
A significant amount of “useable food waste”—that is, the food that hasn’t been touched by the customers of the dining hall— goes to the St. Herman House, said Dennis Dube, manager of Lang Dining Hall. St. Herman’s is a non-profit that houses homeless men and serves people in need in Cleveland. Food from Lang, the Union, the Colony Room and vending is taken to St. Herman’s weekly, as well as at the end of large catered events. Dube said that dining services donates about 150-200 pounds of food a week to St. Herman’s in an effort that is primarily organized within dining services.
“The school— I don’t think they know anything about it really,” said Dube. “As far as within dining services, it really came down to we can either pay somebody to take it away…or we can take it to people that need it.”
Marie Oravec, purchaser for dining services, said she started donating BW’s leftover food about 15 years ago and sent food from events and leftover food from vendors. Other dining services employees have gotten on board with the initiative and they have since developed a system for the donations.
“After the major events such as the president’s luncheon, all leftover food is packaged,” said Oravec. “Our department knows I do this every year, so I have several people that do a wonderful job helping to package and label the leftovers. Our managers review fresh produce and products that will not last over the holiday and our coolers get emptied. I call St. Herman’s ahead of time so they can expect me, pack my car literally to the brim, and make the delivery.”
Over the past few years, the donation system has expanded to giving away food on a more frequent basis and now includes prepared food. Dube said Michele Sepesy, visit coordinator in admissions, is a major part of the success of this program.
Before working in admissions, Sepesy was in the administrative side of BW dining services. At the time, she took a sociology class at BW that required volunteer work. St. Herman’s fit the criteria for the project and its willingness to accept volunteers and donations drew Sepesy in.
“I chose St. Herman’s because you could just show up down there tonight and ask to serve dinner and they would let you come in… they’ll just let you walk in the door and help,” said Sepesy. “I was familiar with it. And then once I got to learn more about St. Herman’s and how little bit of money they have for their budget for food, I started asking if we could save our food.”
Before this system of donations started, Sepesy said, “they would just throw it away—not necessarily throw it away, but it would go in the pulper, and then the pulper went into the earth tub and then the earth tub was supposed to be fertilizer for the garden. But it wasn’t going to people.”
Dube said that there are several reasons why some food doesn’t reach the dining rooms of BW dining halls: quantity overestimates, if there’s not enough of a leftover item to serve and if they overestimate how much students will like certain foods.
Unusable food waste is that which has been served already, regardless of whether it’s been eaten or not. Dube said that he has seen more of this kind of waste since the new meal plan was implemented.
“The situation has gotten a little bit better, but because of the mindset of all you can eat, there is an awful lot more food waste going from the table to the garbage can or back on the dish line,” said Dube. “I think I’ve also closed my eyes to it to a certain extent…It’s making me crazy. Absolutely crazy. I know I’m going down there on Friday. I could be taking this stuff.”
Sepesy said she wants students to be more aware.
“Educate each incoming class as to just how the system works,” said Sepesy, “and they can eat until they’re full, but don’t take so much ahead of time that you’re throwing it away because if it’s leftover it does go to a good cause.”