Eating at Yale was once an unsavory affair. Young men subsisted on salt beef, dry cod, and the occasional apple ‘pye’: a doughy dessert prepared with sugar, hog’s lard, and a peck of apples. Wars brought shortages, and at times, the students found the food so unbearable that they threw the boiled beef on the floor and the rancid butter out the windows. In the “Bread and Butter Rebellion” of 1828, a group of them went on strike, unsuccessfully, against the central dining hall, Commons, for its unsatisfactory offerings.
In the fifty-four years since anthropologist Loomis Havemeyer published Eating at Yale: 1701–1965, almost everything about the dining experience has changed. Ceramic plateware, spa water, and self-service replaced the Yale china, hard cider, and butlers. Menus evolved to serve more global food. And yet, the philosophy behind eating at Yale has remained constant: it’s not really about the food. Eating at Yale is about sitting, thinking, and talking.
But as students engage in conversation over Char Sui Ramen and Brownie Walnut Pudding, most do not realize that we live in a country where food waste is the largest and least recycled portion of the waste stream and in a city where 22 percent of residents lack steady access to healthy and affordable food.
Yale University oversees twenty-three residential and retail dining operations and serves an average of fourteen thousand meals each day. The scale of this operation means that the way the University considers larger issues of food waste and food insecurity can have a significant impact.
What happens before we eat is a familiar story. Yale Dining strives to source food locally and limit food waste during production. Dining staff turn unattractive tomato “seconds” into salsa and misshapen pumpkins into ravioli. They employ a “nose-to-tail” philosophy; if broccoli florets are the vegetable du jour, the stems are used in soups, and the leaves are featured in salad bars. To improve campus “food literacy,” Yale sponsors local farm tours to teach students about its sustainable procurement practices. Come autumn, ninety mostly flannel-clad undergraduates flock to nearby farms to ride tractors through pumpkin patches and pick apples from trees in a vision of pastoral bliss.
But the largely untold story of where our food goes after we eat can help elucidate Yale’s role in the New Haven food ecosystem. Where are the Yale-sponsored tours of the places Yale sends its food once students are done eating?
It’s lunchtime in your favorite residential college dining hall, and you’re clearing your dishes and waving goodbye to your friends. You scrape what remains of your red lentil pasta and garbanzo bean salad into the food waste bin. You speed to your seminar, pull up your readings, and spend the next hour trying to come up with a vaguely intelligent thought to share in class. You have long since forgotten your lunch.
As you carry on with your day, your red lentil pasta and garbanzo bean salad sit in a bin with the other half-eaten and uneaten foods. Once or twice daily, a Yale truck collects the food scraps from your meal and the other 13,999 served that day. Your lunch travels thirty-three miles on I-91 North to Southington, Connecticut.
The truck turns onto Depaolo Drive and pulls up to a large white structure on an expanse of black tar, nestled between an evergreen forest and rust-colored piles of mulch and topsoil. Men in bright yellow hoodies wander the grounds to monitor the cylindrical tanks and the magic happening inside them. Atop the largest of six tanks, an American flag waves in the wind.
Quantum Biopower is Connecticut’s first food waste-to-energy facility and the only anaerobic digester on the East Coast. In 2011, Connecticut issued a food diversion mandate that requires large commercial businesses that produce 104 tons or more of food waste per year to send their food scraps to a state-licensed recycling operation, so long as there is such an operation within twenty miles. Though colleges and universities are exempt from the 2011 mandate, Yale, striving to be a leader on the sustainability front, opted to comply. In late 2016, the University became one of Quantum Biopower’s first customers.
The Yale truck parks in Quantum’s reception bay and empties the day’s load into a murky brown pool that the company’s vice president Brian Paganini calls a “really gross milkshake.” The stench of rotting food pervades the air as Yale’s food scraps mix with waste from nearby supermarkets, hotels, hospitals, and seven other colleges and universities. A violent churning separates inorganic materials from the organic ones before the milkshake is fed to the digester: a titanic oxygen-deprived steel tank that holds one million gallons of liquefied waste at a low-pH, high-temperature setting.
Microscopic bacteria in the digester consume the food waste with constant oversight from the Quantum team. “You can’t give the bacteria the whole Thanksgiving meal one day, or it won’t eat the next,” said Director of Operations John Ferguson. He described the anaerobic digester as an infant in its early days—the bacteria’s first ‘meal’ was milk from a nearby dairy supplier—that has since blossomed into a hungry teenager that will eat basically anything.
As the bacteria consume the liquefied waste, they expel methane. “It’s a biological process,” said Paganini. “No different than a cow’s stomach or the human body.” Quantum’s state-of-the-art tanks harness the methane to create electricity. Southington buys back some of the electricity at a discounted rate to power its wastewater plants, municipal buildings, police station, and fire station.
So far in 2019, Yale trucks have delivered over 850 tons of food waste to the Quantum facility. The Quantum operation recycles forty-thousand tons of food waste each year, generating 420 thousand cubic feet of contained methane and enough electricity to theoretically power 775 homes with clean energy each.
One of the main advantages of anaerobic digestion is that it keeps the methane contained, harnessing the emissions as fuel for energy creation. Traditional composting, which turns organic waste into soil and fertilizer, allows some methane to escape into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. While Yale’s partnership with Quantum Biopower diverts waste from landfills and incinerators, the University’s food disposal system isn’t perfect. For one, food waste bins are only available to students in dining halls, during dining hall hours. This system fails to capture food waste generated from Yale’s robust snacking and buttery culture. Secondly, diners often put into waste bins things that cannot be processed at the facility. According to Ferguson, Quantum recently contacted Yale about silverware, trays, tools, and even brooms mixed in with the food scraps. The machinery can scrape out this contamination, but only at a volume of 5 to 10 percent of incoming material.
On college campuses, every eater plays a role in optimizing sustainable operations. To estimate how much food to purchase, Yale Dining uses data-driven meal forecasting based on two years of historical data. If all students adhered to Yale Dining’s “take what you eat, and eat what you take” philosophy, a message printed rather inconspicuously on dining hall fliers, the data would reflect small behavioral changes and eventually lead to purchasing reductions.
Natalie Warren, who graduated from Yale in 2017, tackled the issue of university food waste in her cognitive science thesis. She sees food waste as a cooperative dilemma since students must expend some costly effort (taking the appropriate amount of food) to promote a public good (reducing food waste). For her thesis, she implemented a cooperation-inspired marketing campaign in half of the college dining halls, fastening endearing posters to napkin dispensers and bulletin boards with slogans like “Second Time’s A Charm: Take only what you eat and go back for seconds if you’re still hungry. #cleanplateclub.” The six dining halls with the marketing intervention saw a statistically significant reduction in dinnertime food waste at an average of .01 pounds per person per day, or about sixteen pounds per day. Later iterations of Warren’s signs still adorn dining halls today, reminding students to consume with intention.
Edmund Chute, a senior at Yale, and Chris Chute, who graduated two years ago, are taking a technological approach to campus food waste generated outside of the dining hall. This fall, the brothers launched Vulture, an app designed to provide students with fast, accurate information about every source of free food on campus. Students post a picture, description, and the location of any surplus food. Other users receive a notification with directions and updates should the Insomnia cookies or Popeyes biscuits run out before they arrive. “We think the best way to reduce food waste is to create a platform for notifying people, telling them when food is available, and making it fun to go get it,” said Chris Chute. The app has launched at Yale and Harvard, and the Chute brothers hope to expand to other campuses across the country.
Still, the scale of the problem is enormous. In the United States today, more than thirty-six million tons of food are sent to methane-releasing landfills and ash- and soot-producing incinerators. It would take an additional 910 facilities like Quantum Biopower to divert all this waste and turn it into energy. Quantum is already running at 95 percent capacity, so the team sees tremendous opportunity for growth in the state of Connecticut and across America. “Anaerobic digestion is at the nexus between recycling and energy. In the United States, this whole industry is very much in its infancy,” said Paganini. “Recovering food waste is the last portion of the waste stream that really needs attention. It’s the final frontier of recycling.”
But there are still many barriers. Not all states have mandates like Connecticut’s, and even Connecticut’s mandate is poorly enforced. Developing, permitting, and financing anaerobic digestion facilities is an expensive endeavor that requires community support, and many people have a not-in-my-backyard attitude toward waste, Ferguson said. Without these facilities, the onus falls entirely on institutions and individuals to reduce waste.
Not all food Yale Dining cooks is digested by its student body and Quantum bacteria. As Yale’s food scraps make the daily trek to the anaerobic digester, Yale’s untouched leftovers travel a shorter distance: to the soup kitchens, daycare centers, elderly housing apartments, and faith communities in New Haven that feed some of the University’s food-insecure neighbors.
If the algorithms for predicting food volume were perfect, Yale Dining wouldn’t have any leftovers to donate, but a sprawling, buffet-style food service operation makes excess inevitable. On Fridays and Saturdays, Yale student volunteers pick up some of these leftovers from the residential college dining halls. They drive around twenty pans of food to the United Parish House at the corner of Temple and Wall Street, home to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, or DESK. Since 1987, DESK has provided weekday meals to New Haven residents experiencing homelessness or poverty. In 2005, students working with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project extended DESK service to weekends by launching the Yale Community Kitchen, or YCK: a food-rescue program where student volunteers serve and staff dinner service with food donated by Yale Dining.
On weekend nights, YCK volunteers in hairnets and chalky white gloves serve chicken thighs, grilled carrots, and Bolognese pasta on plastic trays. At round tables in folding chairs, about fifty men, women, and children eat dinners that closely resemble what the Yale student volunteers ate in the dining halls that week. YCK Project Heads Willemijn van Deursen and Maurice Ware are grateful for the friendships they’ve built at the United Parish House over the years, though they hope for a day when they no longer see the same people meal after meal. “Our goal as an organization is not to exist because then there wouldn’t be a need,” said van Deursen.
Today, some emergency food services in New Haven are made possible by Yale Dining’s inefficiencies. It’s a fragile system: meeting the urgent needs of one group currently depends on another group having too much.
Yale Dining is also a steady donor to Haven’s Harvest, a one-year-old food recovery nonprofit that redistributes food through a deep and broad community network. “Runners” drive trays from restaurants, supermarkets, and universities to churches, housing complexes, and community agencies. These hyper-local exchanges typically take no longer than fifteen minutes.
“The perimeter of Yale’s campus is food insecure,” said Lori Martin, the founder and executive director of Haven’s Harvest. “We don’t need to move food far to make a difference, and nobody within an arm’s length of this campus should go without food.”
On one run in November, Caleb MartinMooney, Haven’s Harvest’s operations director and Martin’s son, parked his gray station wagon on York Street. He descended the stone steps to Branford College’s basement kitchen and grabbed three pans of food from a walk-in refrigerator. He loaded orzo, herbed chicken, and eggplant parmesan into his Bernie-sticker-speckled trunk. With NPR on low in the background, MartinMooney drove 2.1 miles to the Fair Haven Elderly Apartments where he dropped off the food in a common area with large windows and potted plants. He retrieved a dozen pans from last week’s delivery and drove home. This run is one of about twenty of Haven’s Harvest food transfers that happen each day, totaling nearly a million pounds of redistributed food annually.
It was initially difficult for Martin to find a home for her carloads of organic and commercially grown food. Four of the pillars of emergency food service in New Haven—DESK, Columbus House, Loaves and Fishes, and the Community Soup Kitchen—rely mostly on food banks and had little interest in the variety and unpredictability of Haven’s Harvest’s supply. But Martin knew that more residents than those who regularly attend soup kitchens experience food insecurity.
“Excess food is not just for those in need, an ‘us’ and ‘them,” said Martin. She described one encounter with a woman from Connecticut’s shoreline who called with six pans of food leftover from a town hall. Martin called several faith communities near the donor site and found a place that could use the food. When she told the donor where the food was going, the donor was surprised it wasn’t headed for New Haven. “There are people who are hungry everywhere,” Martin reflected. “What has been surprising is food insecurity is so silent. Sometimes we don’t hear about it until that burden has been lifted.”
Martin has since developed a community-centered approach to food recovery. Through word of mouth, people know to call her when spare food arises unexpectedly, whether that’s dozens of pizza boxes from a conference or six-hundred burritos from a hackathon.
Sometimes businesses are shocked by the amount of excess food coming from their own kitchens. This realization may prompt institutional efforts to reduce food waste, resulting in fewer food donations. Martin urges food providers to embrace, rather than resent, the leftovers they do produce. “Excess food is not a shameful thing,” she said. “But the ‘shamefulness’ makes it so we can’t talk truthfully about leftover food. If employees can’t tell the truth, then the food will get thrown away when we could have done something better with it.”
Despite the potential for more food aid to come from newly-embraced leftovers, Martin understands that food redistribution will only ever be a temporary solution to a deeper problem. Austin Bryniarski, a School of Forestry & Environmental Studies graduate, focuses on the politics of food waste. He commends Martin’s willingness to talk about power, race, class and gender when it comes to food redistribution, but he wishes that the emergency food service industry as a whole would “flex its political muscles” more.
In Bryniarski’s eyes, food recovery programs, banks, and kitchens address an immediate lack of food while often forgetting that hunger is just one way that poverty manifests. “The most sustainable, structural way to address food insecurity is to address the poverty that makes food so hard to come by,” said Bryniarski. “Otherwise, you miss the forest for the trees.”
Bryniarski also worries some of these programs treat food-insecure populations as mere mouths to consume unwanted excess. “The people on the receiving end of this food basically become a safety valve for a system in which people produce too much,” said Bryniarski.
Critiquing a system of emergency food providers has complex implications, especially when so many residents currently depend on them for their meals. But Bryniarski is right that alleviating food insecurity in New Haven would require more of Yale than surplus food donations.
If the University supported upstream political change, like affordable housing, job creation, and fair wage initiatives, fewer people would depend on emergency food providers. Mayor-Elect Justin Elicker, for instance, urges the University to rethink its tax contribution to the city. In his Blue New Deal, he pressures Yale to give $50 million annually, quadruple its current voluntary contribution. Elicker believes this money would dramatically increase New Haven’s ability to function as a city. Moving from a temporary solution to a permanent one takes time, and there are limits to what any institution, even one as powerful as Yale, can do to effect change. To start, Yale Dining could supplement its farm tours with initiatives to advance a campus-wide understanding of food insecurity and food waste as pieces of a larger structural puzzle.
While college students today are often told to attend to the present moment, it is worth thinking about the future: the immediate future in which our garbanzo bean vestiges power the Southington fire station and leftover orzo from college kitchens finds a second home at DESK, but also the future that people like Bryniarski are working towards, in which food insecurity doesn’t exist and food waste is not wasted. The next time you’re eating Quinoa-Stuffed Peppers in your residential college, engage in the hallowed tradition of dining hall discourse, and ask your neighbor: how can we get there?