How Boston College reduced food waste by 60 percent
Sean Canny, assistant general manager at Corcoran Commons, Boston College.

How Boston College reduced food waste by 60 percent

Leanpath helps uncover the truth about food waste in educational institutions’ kitchens.

January 4, 2019

Boston College’s dining halls, cafe's and mini marts serve more than 20,000 meals per day. On upper campus, Carney’s is one of the most popular dining spots, and serves 4,000 meals a day. Across campus, bustling food stations at Lower Live offer fresh chicken, steak, seafood and a daily salad bar. Julianne Stelmaszyk and the culinary team operate the giant food system like a well-oiled machine.

Their mission: reduce waste.

In 2014, Boston College piloted the Leanpath system in one of its biggest kitchens, which serves 7,000 meals a day. Front-line kitchen workers began measuring and tracking food waste each night. Food waste dropped by 60 percent, preventing 580,116 pounds of wasted food, when the university embraced the system.

When Stelmaszyk came on board as Boston College Dining’s sustainability manager, two problems were apparent: single-use plastic waste and food waste.

“About 60 percent of our customers take items to go,” says Stelmaszyk, who worked as a vegetable farmer, private chef and sustainable food educator throughout Boston and Rome, Italy, prior to working at Boston College. “The front of the house waste is single-use products versus actual food waste. Most of the food waste we deal with is back of house, which gave us an opportunity.”

Sean Canny manages one of two of Boston College’s busiest dining halls. Canny established a Stop Waste Action Team (SWAT) and encouraged kitchen workers to step up to the plate to reduce food waste.

"We came up with the idea to ask the front-line kitchen workers to come up with solutions to food waste and they blew our minds,” Canny says.

The primary waste culprit was the salad bar. The culinary team came up with the idea to use smaller dishes on the salad bar, which gave the appearance of being “full” while having less food out at a time. In two weeks, the team cut salad bar waste in half and eventually reduced it by 95 percent.

The team also started repurposing unserved meatballs and chicken on pizza and making ice cream sandwiches with leftover cookies.

Commenting on Leanpath, Stelmaszyk says, “As the managers log in and look at real time items that are being weighed and documented, they can see salmon got thrown out or composted, but it looked perfectly edible. They go directly to the cooks to see what we can do different.”

Stelmaszyk says the most challenging part has been cutting down on single-use plastic waste. Boston College offers GreenToGo, a reusable, returnable takeout container service, but it’s up to students to choose the sustainable option.

“Students seem to care a lot about single-use plastic, but then the reality is they choose single-use,” Stelmaszyk says. “We’re starting to think about how many plastic forks we use every year and how can we share that with students so they can be aware of that impact they’re having.”

This year, the team is looking into how to reduce food waste within the institution’s catering operation.

“There’s inevitably a lot of waste that’s generated from these offsite events,” Stelmaszyk says. “We’re on the path of finding a way we can measure that waste and find a solution.”

As a farmer and chef, food for Stelmaszyk has always been an area where she can make the biggest impact on the world around her. She says institutions and the people who work within them have a role beyond just serving meals every day, hinting at food sourcing and waste management.

“I think chefs have reached that enlightenment and see their role as a leader of their team and what influence they do have,” Stelmaszyk says. “I think that’s starting to trickle into other spaces in the food system.”

Stelmaszyk credits Beth Emery, director of Boston College Dining, for allowing the culinary team to take control of their kitchen.

“She understands sustainability is no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have,” Stelmaszyk says. “Her emphasis on the fact that this is really important, and this is not something going away has allowed the team to feel really empowered to take leadership roles and find solutions in their day-to-day operations.”

Sustainability is ingrained into the culture on campus. Walking around, students have access to compost, recycle and landfill bins. Stelmaszyk fills the student body in on the college’s longtime compost program and gets them involved with food rescue, which donates food every week to homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the Boston area.

“We’re either putting in in the compost or donating it at the end of the night,” Stelmaszyk says. “We’re finding a place where we can repurpose it. No one wants to throw away food they've purchased."