At 6:30 p.m. on any given night at the Daniel and Grace Tully Dining Commons, it is a guarantee that the silver, metal racks heading to the dishwashing station are filled with used plates—and even more so, piled with leftover, uneaten food. 

Sophomore Jennifer Fajardo exclaimed, “Based on what I see, I feel like food is being thrown out. But honestly, how would students know when we’re not informed what goes on in the kitchen?” she asked.

Each year, 119 billion pounds of food are wasted in the United States, according to Feeding America—and around 5 percent of that waste is derived from college campuses. Is Fairfield University contributing to these horrifying statistics?

According to Matt Dinnan, the Vice President of Auxiliary Services, the dining facilities on Fairfield University’s campus are actually working tirelessly to separate themselves from the majority of American schools. 

When explaining all of the countless “behind-the-scenes” routines that dining hall employees have in place to combat overconsumption and leftover pollution in their name, Dinnan noted the first and most effective: the university’s four-year-old partnership with Blue Earth.

Our Compost Partners

“There are containers about four feet high, in the dish room,” Dinnan shared. “The attendees are separating paper, plastic and solid waste in separate containers which get brought down to the loading dock. You can see 20 little blue containers with yellow tops that hold solid waste which Blue Earth, a third-party company, will come in and pick up.”

According to Blue Earth’s website, the family-owned business started in 2013, and was created based on one premise: “food scraps do not belong in a landfill or incinerator.” The company goes on to state that leftover waste should be recycled back into soil for an increase in healthy, nutrient and resilient soils. In addition to being accessible for homes and events, Blue Earth works in collaboration with a multitude of businesses including Fairfield University with the hopes of improving the environment.

According to Dinnan, Fairfield University has composted “446,740 pounds of waste” since the partnership with Blue Earth. This amount not only mitigates CO2 emissions that are equivalent to 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and 12,800 gallons of burned gasoline, but it has led to 1,876 seedlings being planted and has created around 15,500 kWh of energy.

Tully Routines

In addition to Fairfield’s weekly compost contribution, Dinnan noted other small changes that have aided the university in reducing waste such as eliminating trays in the dining hall and shrinking the size of our meal plates.

“We used to have trays and we eliminated trays for two reasons. One is, environmentally, we’re trying to save as much water as we can, and washing the trays takes up water. But also, with trays came more waste,” Dinnan continued, “Oftentimes with the trays, students would take two plates—I’m guilty of it too, some people’s eyes are just bigger than their stomach. People take more than they eat unintentionally.”

In previous years, the dining hall would also have stacks of 11-inch plates to fill up for each meal. Now, they are only nine-inch in diameter. “The plates are a little smaller in diameter than they used to be and with that in mind, you can’t put as much food on it as you did in the past.” Because the dining hall is styled as a buffet, if students are still hungry after their first plate, they are still able to go up and fill another. However, this intentional move has led to a noticeable decline in the amount of waste.

“We’ve also got a hybrid of self-serve or sometimes served to you, because of two reasons. From the customer-facing perspective, it’s better to have someone serving you and asking you what you may need, and also when you’re not self-serving yourself you’re not as apt to take as much,” he shared.

Lastly, Dinnan mentioned the hope to decrease plastic waste in addition to food.

“Any time we have a ‘downtime’ with our dishwasher mechanically, like if something breaks, then we unfortunately have to roll out paper and plastic until it’s fixed—we try to minimize that as much as possible. In the catering house, we have a green platform as well so I can select to have meals on ‘greenware’ which is recyclable plates. Those are conscious decisions that our community has to make.”

“Sometimes there may be events where they want china plates, but we have and offer [green ware] as a platform,” Dinnan shared.

Using Metrics

Per the university’s dining options, students can pick from a variety of meal plans designed for specific class years, living spaces and flexibility. No matter what plan students pick, however, every student must swipe their student ID-issued StagCard in exchange for each meal. This method is used as currency but is also a way to measure which dining facilities are being used most and at what times. 

“Typically, when a student swipes in for food, if they are on the meal plan, we can track how many swipes are used at each location,” Dinnan explained. 

He continued, “We’re constantly looking at those metrics and seeing where the trends are so when we purchase food we’re doing it with a plan in mind.”

“Ironically, we’re finding this past semester, for those who are on the meal plan, 50% of our swipes for those on the meal plan are eating lunch and dinner outside of the Tully. So, even though the Tully is limited with seats, it’s really only during specific times, most times you can find seats in there and that’s because students are electing to eat elsewhere either because their schedule is so busy, time doesn’t permit or there is a desire to go somewhere else on a particular day,” Dinnan further explained.

With one of the university’s plans, students can exchange a meal swipe at any of the dining facilities on campus, which includes The Tully, Leeve, Stag Snack Bar, Starbucks, Sushi-Do and a rotating selection of food trucks. Additionally, students are given a starting number of dining dollars depending on which meal plan they choose at the beginning of the semester but have the opportunity to add more. This can be used at any of the locations above except for The Tully and includes our on-campus Dunkin’ Donuts.

As of Jan. 9, 2023, the Stag Card office sent out an email entitled “Spring 2023 Meal Plan Information” which declared a new rule that was never in place before: four swipes must be used at the Tully each week for students with the 14 Meal Plan. For those with the Unlimited Meal Plan, only 14 weekly swipes are accepted at locations outside of the Tully. If all 14 are used before Friday at the surrounding dining facilities, their card will only work for the dining hall.

Following this, a majority of students wallowed in frustration due to the interruption to their schedules and flexibility. “I think it’s dumb,” Brendan Murphy ‘26 said. “We’re already paying for the meal plan so we should be able to choose where we eat and not the university.”

However, Dinnan noted that it was for good reason: the Tully is the only place on campus that does not do takeout. 

So, by having students use the dining hall four times a week, the hope is to continue to reduce waste. “When takeout is involved, that means there are containers and there is waste,” Dinnan explained.

Off-Campus Contributions

Besides scraps and leftover meals that students aren’t able to finish after each meal, what happens to the fresh, untouched trays of perfectly consumable food? It doesn’t go into the trash and it doesn’t go to Blue Earth.

Every Friday and Sunday, Fairfield’s dining facilities donate leftover meals to Bridgeport’s Prospect House, a community health center. On average, the university provides Prospect House attendees with 1,405 average meals per week. Even further, the school donates around 1,330 meals per week to a food rescue program on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are usually leftover from catering.

Still, there are rules and concerns to stay mindful of when giving food away. 

“There are only some foods that can be donated or are allowed to be reheated—we can’t donate anything that is [at] risk of contamination. It has to be prepared, prepared, kept warm or chilled if that’s the case.” 

He continued, “What we typically do is the items that are being donated aren’t necessarily items that were brought out to the serving line and were half used—they are rather items that were trayed, prepped and never brought out of the warmers and so we can transport them the following day.”

Engaging with the Student Body

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the university partnered with the student-run organization, Leaders of Environmental Action at Fairfield (LEAF) and analyzed waste on campus. 

“In that time, in the Tully, we stacked up how many things were thrown out so there was some sort of visual attached to that. For a variety of reasons, we can’t do that anymore because piling up waste isn’t something that the town permits,” Dinnan stated. As a result, their partnership with Blue Earth began.

Joey Nizzardo ‘24, Vice President of LEAF, stated even though the club “does not participate in any food waste programs,” they have focused primarily on weekly beach clean-ups to eliminate other types of pollution. However, Nizzardo shares that he believes the university is doing a good job of reducing food waste. 

The club leader’s advice is similar to Dinnan’s: “Only get as much food as you realistically think you will eat at once. If you want more food, you can always get another serving.”

As we continue on the path to educating Fairfield students, both current and future Stags, Dinnan encouraged the community to be more mindful of their consumption habits. But even further, he noted that “it’s best when it’s heard by your peers.”

“We rely on our engaged and active students who best know how to reach our other students. That may be through social media … Stags Hospitality has an Instagram account so we were talking about how to best engage our students,” Dinnan continued, “We might look to make following that account an incentive next year so maybe they will read more about what’s being sent out.”

Looking Ahead

While Stags Hospitality continues to host a multitude of monthly programs, they still look to increase their events. One that Dinnan is more hopeful about is the chance to collaborate with Fairfield University’s Student Association for potential cooking classes. In the proposed platform, students who have an on-campus kitchen would be able to learn how to properly grocery shop for ingredients and cook for one person; therefore minimizing waste. 

In addition to reducing overconsumption, they also want to investigate how to help students that don’t have easy access to meals. “We have students that have, despite what Fairfield may look like, food insecurity,” Dinnan made sure to note.

Currently, a food pantry can be found in Campus Ministry, however, Dinnan looks to include some future initiatives that better support students who lack the resources needed to attain a regular meal. 

“Students may perhaps give up a swipe a week that can go into a food bank that then can be put on someone’s card anonymously which they can then use as a meal swipe.” In this case, both students would benefit: Student A would receive a meal, while Student B would be aiding the dining facilities by giving away a meal that would not have been eaten.

About The Author

-- Senior I Executive Editor I English Creative Writing & Digital Journalism --

Brooke is a senior English Creative Writing and Digital Journalism major, with minors in Film, Television & Media and Editing & Publishing. She plans to pursue a career in screenwriting after graduation.

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