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Food waste for dinner? U-M hosts sustainable culinary event on Ann Arbor campus

An event attendee helps herself to a meal prepared by MDining chefs using food that would traditionally be wasted on Feb. 18, 2020 at the Michigan Union.
An event attendee helps herself to a meal prepared by MDining chefs using food that would traditionally be wasted on Feb. 18, 2020 at the Michigan Union. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Everything bagels, leftover cheese cubes from cheese platters, mushroom stems -- these are items that MDining would have tossed to the trash, but instead transformed into a delicious chef dinner on campus.

On Tuesday evening, University of Michigan community members gathered for a dinner and discussion on food waste at the Michigan Union.

Hosted by Planet Blue Student Leaders in collaboration with MDining and the University of Michigan Student Food Program, attendees enjoyed dishes like beef scrap bulgogi with spent roasted garlic fried rice, pepper top hummus and cauliflower heart tabbouleh created by MDining chefs followed by a panel discussion with leaders in sustainability on campus and from the city of Ann Arbor.

Panelists at the U-M food waste dinner on Feb. 18, 2020.
Panelists at the U-M food waste dinner on Feb. 18, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

The panel featured U-M student Chase Dautrich, U-M associate professor of urban and regional planning Lesli Hoey, campus executive chef Russ Palmer and solid waste outreach and compliance specialist at the city of Ann Arbor, Jennifer Petoskey.

“When you think about the University of Michigan, we have nine residential halls and 20 different retail operations and three different catering units," said Palmer. “It’s a lot of food coming into our locations. What chefs do is they create menus and the fun part about it is cross-utilizing ingredients on menus: How can we utilize them in three to four places on the menu to the best and the fullest degree so that we reduce food waste, food cost and inventory?"

Read: U-M Campus Farm: Food grown by students, for students

Palmer said that over the years, MDining has moved to trayless dining with smaller plates to reduce food waste.

“What that really does is it offers students more variety, more opportunity to try different things," said Palmer. “Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomach.”

Campus executive chef, Russ Palmer, speaks during a dining event at Michigan Union on Feb. 18, 2020.
Campus executive chef, Russ Palmer, speaks during a dining event at Michigan Union on Feb. 18, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

Associate professor Hoey is co-leading a food analysis team as part of President Schlissel’s commission on carbon neutrality. Hoey’s task, along with Andy Jones from the School of Public Health, is to consider food waste on all three U-M campuses and what can be done to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re mostly thinking about procurement and what we can do about the food that’s consumed and bought and prepared," said Hoey. “The other side is food waste and composting. So, how to prevent food waste in the first place and (ways we can compost).”

Petoskey explained how waste is processed in the city of Ann Arbor.

“When you throw your food into the trashcan, it goes to the landfill,” said Petoskey. “Every day they put landfill cover and this is crushed glass, pallets, soil. So what this does is it prevents oxygen from getting to the waste. Because there’s no oxygen, this waste takes a very long time to break down. I’m talking decades. And as it breaks down it produces methane. It is 30 times worse than CO2.”

The city of Ann Arbor currently keeps roughly 30% of its waste out of landfills, and Petoskey said one way to improve that figure is if residents regularly compost. She said that the city offers compost to all single-family homes and some multi-family residences.

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“When you put things into the compost here, it goes to WeCare Denali just south of the city,” said Petoskey. “It gets put into a windrow -- which is a long pile -- with a bunch of other organic material like brush and leaves and grass. And it gets turned, which makes sure it gets aerated.”

During this process, food breaks down into its basic molecules and can be used for gardening.

Attendees help themselves to dishes created using food that would otherwise become waste at Michigan Union on Feb. 18, 2020.
Attendees help themselves to dishes created using food that would otherwise become waste at Michigan Union on Feb. 18, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

While the waste dinner is not a new event to campus, U-M senior and event organizer Claire Prenevost said this was the first year the dinner was followed by a panel discussion. She also said it is an event that MDining’s chefs look forward to each year.

“I think that this is a great challenge for the chefs because obviously at Michigan there’s so much food waste, and being able to think ahead to events and think of new ways to use the food is really fun for them and I think they really enjoy this every year,” said Prenevost.

Cake trifle with candied citrus using cake scraps from the University of Michigan bakery.
Cake trifle with candied citrus using cake scraps from the University of Michigan bakery. (Meredith Bruckner)

Graduate student Shuhaib Nawawi from Malaysia recently joined Planet Blue Student Leaders out of an interest in sustainability and food waste. When asked if he enjoyed the meal, he said:

“The food is amazing. I can’t believe how the chef can make it from the things that weren’t used from leftover events. That’s crazy -- it’s brilliant for them to do that.”


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