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How the University of Illinois U-C reduced food waste by 63%

By Sam Smith, Director of Marketing  //  January 30, 2018

IKE Dining Room.jpg

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign installed LeanPath scales in its eight dining halls and catering facility in 2013. Even though it was five years ago, Assistant Director of Dining Thurman Etchison still remembers the surprise of those first few weeks.

“The thing that shocked me the most was the dramatic decrease in food waste we saw from the start,” he says. “Over a month’s time, we dropped probably six to seven thousand pounds a week.”

Since 2015 alone, the university--which serves 40,000 meals a day--has prevented 1.4 million pounds of food waste, a drop of 63 percent.

“Being sustainable is important to us, but it’s also in line with our students’ wishes,” says Etchison. “What we do and what students see us do will affect what they do down the road. If they go out into the world with the understanding this [preventing food waste] is important, we’ve helped out.”

UofI Urbana-Champaign’s path to success
  1. Tackle the salad bar. Salad bars are notorious centers of food waste. The urge is to keep them fully stocked until close, but that leaves lots of food wasted at the end of the day. The university deliberately begins shrinking the size of holding pans as they approach closing. All the way down to a single platter holding enough ingredients for a final one or two salads at midnight close.
  2. Keep staff engaged. The university has run the LeanPath program for five years, but waste levels still “fluctuate some based on how much we focus on it,” says Etchison. “It really has to come from the top down.” So every week LeanPath team leaders meet to review waste levels and decide on adjustments to production levels. “We talk a lot about the big picture of climate change and that, realistically, all of us have to make a change. I think they see the big picture as well as the part they play.”
  3. Repurpose. If you can’t prevent, repurpose. Before prepping, staff review leftovers from the prior day and reduce production levels accordingly. Staff are also encouraged to get creative and create daily specials built around leftovers. Their name is featured in the day’s special.
  4. Batch cooking. As a general rule, prep is done in batches, instead of for an entire meal period. This gives the staff more control over production as traffic slows through the day.
  5. Retrain. The university utilizes LeanPath’s built-in camera to understand additional training opportunities. “If you see a whole pan full of pepper tops, you know you need to train on how to trim a pepper correctly,” says Assistant Director of Dining Kelly Boeger.

Topics: Food Waste Musings, Food Waste Prevention Newsletter, commercial kitchen