With a student population of over 49,000, the University of Wisconsin’s dining halls have a tall order to fill come meal time — and with an abundance of food comes an abundance of leftovers.

For the approximately 8,000 residents of UW’s student housing, the mandatory dining hall plan places a hefty amount of work onto the school’s Dining and Culinary team — which doesn’t even address the additional customers from off-campus students or Madison locals visiting one of the two student Unions. 

University Housing’s increasing awareness of consumer allergies and special dietary restrictions leads to a large volume of food being produced on-site daily. In producing a diverse range of food in such large quantities, however, the university has grappled with a troubling issue of overproduction, according to UW News.

This struggle to produce the proper quantities of food for UW’s student body does not stop there. The increased public awareness about the food industry that the National Library of Medicine reported during the pandemic and its role in climate change has inevitably sparked local conversations about food sustainability in Madison.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture places a high threshold in its definition of “food sustainability.” A sustainable food system must deliver “food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised.

According to Malorie Garbe, the sustainability coordinator for University Housing, conversations about food sustainability have become a top priority in the dining halls.

“We’re working toward our goal of zero food waste every single day,” Garbe said. “Our solutions are continuing to evolve.”

UW’s Office of Sustainability launched in March 2012, and after just over a decade of operations, the road to sustainability has grown exponentially. UW’s composting and food waste initiatives have already produced significant results in the last year alone, according to Garbe.

But to truly understand these initiatives and their impacts on sustainability, it is crucial to go back to the fundamentals — namely, the food industry and the concept of food sustainability at large.

From farming, to delivery, to consumer preferences, structural flaws contribute to current unsustainable outcomes in the environmental, social and economic sectors.

On the Farm

The food system starts on the farm. Farms are at the heart of the food industry, and Wisconsin is one of the nation’s biggest farming capitals.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the state exported $4.22 billion dollars worth of agricultural products internationally in 2022, making it the 12th-largest producer in the nation.

The dairy sector of the agricultural industry alone contributes $45.6 billion to the Wisconsin economy annually, according to those same statistics. The state has over 6,000 dairy farms that house about 1.28 million cows — more than any other state.

With Wisconsin’s booming success in agriculture production, however, comes a host of sustainability concerns.

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Diane Mayerfeld is a sustainable agriculture coordinator working alongside the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems — a research center within UW that works to integrate sustainability into farming systems. She helps local educators and farmers learn about sustainable agriculture techniques and resources, including grants from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program through the USDA. Her biggest concern for Wisconsin’s agriculture regards farm soil quality.

“As the climate changes… a healthy soil is really critical to helping farm resilience,” Mayerfeld said. “It’s pretty good at absorbing rain during extreme rain events, and then it acts like a sponge and holds on to that water.”

As soil improves, crop productivity and farm resilience do, too, according to Mayerfeld.

Mayerfeld is a big proponent of agroforestry, a type of agriculture that intentionally incorporates trees, shrubs and cover crops into crop and animal farming systems. Going beyond a net-neutral form of agriculture, agroforestry is a regenerative farming practice that actively restores soil quality and biodiversity, making it a preferred end goal for farming in the long term.

The issue with Wisconsin’s booming dairy business is that traditional dairy farms are notoriously bad for the environment, as Mayerfeld pointed out. Farms with a dense cow population contribute significant levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

While small amounts of cow manure can be repurposed as fertilizer for nearby crop fields, large-scale operations often produce too much to be dealt with properly. According to Sentient Media, this leads to the pollution of nearby bodies of surface water and groundwater more often than not.

Mayerfeld also noted that continuous overgrazing can be disastrous for soil quality, as cows will deplete the land of the best and most nutritious grass on their pasture first — a concept known as spot grazing, according to Rangeland’s Gateway. This ultimately leads to compacted soil and the elimination of the pasture’s flora biodiversity.

But the battle for sustainability does not end once the food has left the farm.

The Middle Ground

It’s rare to find a farmer who is not interested in becoming more sustainable, according to Mayerfeld.

But it’s not so easy for farmers to simply take these environmental considerations into account when producing their products — at the end of the day, they have to be able to turn a profit.

Andrew Stevens, an expert on applied agricultural and food policy and an assistant professor at UW, explores sustainability from this perspective.

“Sustainability is technically viable but not economically viable,” Stevens said. “Farms are small businesses. They need to make enough money to support their businesses and themselves.”

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For the food industry to be economically sustainable, a farmer must be able to make environmentally responsible choices while continuing to turn a profit. On the consumer end, however, sustainably-sourced food has to be affordable.

Practices like agroforestry have real potential to increase biodiversity and heal arid soil, but even Mayerfeld conceded that it is not the most profitable or efficient farming practice.

More eco-friendly practices like these have another cost — labor.

“Labor is the big issue,” Stevens said. “It requires a lot more human labor per acre to do organically… Under 1% of the current U.S. population goes into farming, and nobody is going to want to go into farming for lower wages.”

Because economics and politics are often intertwined, reforming commercial agriculture may involve encountering barriers at the government level as well.

While writing a check to farmers might be a more efficient solution to push Wisconsin’s agricultural sector toward sustainability, it would not be a politically popular option, according to Stevens.

The economics of the agriculture industry are influenced not just by the farmers on the field, but also another key factor — the consumers in the store.

Farm to Table

Consumers are the final actors to consider within the food system, and for UW’s Dining and Culinary Services team, student consumers play a huge role in the outcome of sustainability efforts. The most obvious way this manifests is in food waste.

Garbe said food waste can be split into two categories — front-door and back-door waste.

Back-door waste refers to food that is discarded by kitchen staff during the preparation or cleanup processes, rather than being repurposed or donated elsewhere. Front-door waste is consumer-driven and occurs when individuals throw away excess food or food products after purchasing them.

In university dining halls, this might look like a student taking excess food from the cafeteria and throwing it away when they get full, as opposed to packaging it for later or taking smaller portions to begin with.

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UW’s Ticket to Take Out program is one way the school is trying to curb front-door waste, but ultimately, it comes down to the consumer.

The university has shifted its dining halls to operate on an all-you-can-eat system over the last two academic years, which initially increased front-door food waste, according to Garbe. But, she remains hopeful that there is potential for the system to promote sustainability if used correctly.

“I look at it as a really great sustainability opportunity,” Garbe said. “Students can experiment more with vegan or vegetarian options when they have the creative freedom to pick and choose from different stations to try different diets that they might not have tried beforehand.”

The all-you-can-eat system and its sustainability ultimately come down to how the students choose to use it. This is why consumers hold power when it comes to sustainability — they are the market. As Stevens said, the reason organic food is becoming increasingly available across grocery stores is that consumers are asking for those types of products.

The food industry has sustainability problems at every stage of the process. But where issues fester, potential persists.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In August 2022, UW brought back its composting program in a limited, back-door capacity. The initiative takes excess food from UW kitchens that would otherwise go to the landfill and converts it into compost that can be utilized in other ways, such as crop fertilizer or mulch, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gordon’s, Four Lakes, Memorial Union and Union South, which cumulatively produce over 50% of the school’s total food waste, are the first dining locations to get the go-ahead for this experiment, as Dining and Culinary Services work to prove UW’s capacity to collect compostables without contamination.

UW also has a Food Recovery Network in place for food that is still acceptable to eat but did not get sold on the sales floor. The FRN takes unpurchased meals from dining halls and offers them to the Madison community twice a week for free in an attempt to both limit food waste and combat food insecurity.

These programs are important mechanisms to reuse or recycle excess food, but they are reactionary in nature. Half of the battle is reducing food waste.

“You know the common phrase, reduce, reuse and recycle — reducing food waste is the first step,” Garbe said.

UW’s recent partnership with LeanPath is part of this proactive approach to eliminating food waste from the source. LeanPath uses scales and cameras to weigh and photograph prepared food before and after it is served in university dining halls.

LeanPath’s technology prevents food waste from happening to begin with — something that could benefit the environment while also reducing food purchasing costs for kitchens.

LeanPath reports generate an overview of how much money and environmental resources would be wasted if daily food waste levels were repeated for a year. The photographs of wasted food help kitchens see what exactly went to waste and why, so they can change menus accordingly.

“The fall 2022 semester was all about collecting data of [what] normal services looks like… in the spring 2023 semester, now that we have our baseline from an entire semester, we were able to pinpoint some specific interventions,” Garbe said.

As Garbe noted, by isolating specific ingredients that were being overproduced throughout the fall — in particular, pasta and vegetable dishes — this new data helps UW’s dining halls hone in their production habits and quantities.

Food sustainability efforts at UW go beyond the university. Student organizations like F.H. King are taking steps to bring free, healthy and sustainably-grown produce to Madison residents on and off campus.

“Our goal is to connect the community with food and the land,” education director for F.H. King Rachel French said.

The organization combines sustainable gardening with education to teach community members how to engage in sustainability in their own homes. According to French, one of F.H. King’s current goals is to expand its outreach beyond environmental science majors and engage students from every field of study with food sustainability.

“Getting more involved in policy, government, advocacy, education… are all critical moving forward to expand that vision,” French said.

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According to Garbe, students also played a big role in the creation of Electric Eats, the university’s first 100% electric food truck on campus. As one of the first of its kind across the country, Electric Eats is only a single example of the kind of innovative solutions consumers can help create to generate food sustainability.

As UW steps up to the challenge, local farmers have the chance to change as well. As Mayerfeld noted, it’s rare to find a Wisconsin farmer that is not open to the idea of sustainable agriculture.

“There’s a range of practices, and they’re not easy,” Mayerfeld said.

Practices like reducing tillage, planting cover crops and agroforestry work toward the same end goal — increasing soil quality and biodiversity. The way Mayerfeld sees it, the road to a 100% sustainable farm can be traversed in steps.

According to organizations like FarmProgress, the potential sustainable solutions are endless — and Wisconsin has the opportunity to take action toward sustainability across the production, supply chain and consumer levels. Mayerfeld believes that from farmers to food consumers, we all play a part in the fight for sustainability.

“Madison is a wonderful place to live if you’re looking for food sustainability,” she said. “There are opportunities everywhere for everyone to shop and live consciously.”