If you’ve ever eaten at Foco, you’ve probably seen the food disposal carousel filled with plates and bowls that are still piled high with half-eaten bites.
However, food waste at Foco isn’t an isolated phenomenon: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, college campuses nationwide waste approximately 22 million pounds, or 11,000 tons, of food every year. The average college student generates nearly 142 pounds of food waste annually.
Meghan Kerfoot ’26 expressed her frustration with the amount of food waste produced by the College, which she believes is at odds with its values.
“Although we are located in nature and pride ourselves on our connection with nature, we’re actually remarkably unsustainable,” she said.
According to the Facilities Operations & Management website, Dartmouth currently composts about 400 tons of food waste annually, which is transported from dining venues to a compost compactor and then moved to the Lebanon Landfill.
Dartmouth Dining director Jon Plodzik explained that one reason the College struggles with food waste is Foco’s all-you-can-eat buffet. This style of consumption creates food waste in two key ways.
First, Plodzik said students often forget that they can go back for more servings at Foco, so they pile their plate with more food than they will likely eat. He encourages students to take smaller portions before committing to a larger serving.
“You can always say, ‘I’d like to have a little more of that dish,’ or ‘I’m really interested in trying that dish, so maybe I’ll just take a sample size,’ versus [taking] a whole plate,” he said. “That’s the goal for us: to get folks to be aware that the choices that they make in [Foco] in excess do have an impact.”
Plodzik promoted the “Take Less, Waste Less” program when he joined Dartmouth Dining over seven years ago, which was meant to encourage students to think more consciously about the amount of food they took from Foco in order to minimize food waste. However, after facing backlash from students who were concerned that the statement could be triggering for those with disordered eating habits, Plodzik said Dartmouth Dining has recently avoided the slogan.
Second, food is wasted in Foco when it is spilled onto the counters as students serve themselves, according to Dartmouth Dining registered dietician Elizabeth Rosenberger.
“I filled an entire green tray of what was on the counter at Herbivore after one rush,” she said. “It was killing me, because all [students] have to do is hold their plate closer to what they were doing … that adds up over time.”
Plodzik pointed out the new stickers that have been placed on the plastic sneeze guards in FoCo, which now read, “Please move your plates closer to the line,” referring to the food containers at self-serve stations.
Lily Hemmins ’24 acknowledged that students overload their plates because “they know the whole thing is ‘free,’” but she also believes that the self-serve method can help minimize waste by giving students more choice in the matter about what they eat and how much of it they take.
“You can adjust based on how hungry you are and how much you generally eat,” Hemmins said. “Because you get more choice in the matter, you’re receiving the portion that you think you most likely need.”
Hemmins also believes that the quality of food at Foco can lead to more food waste.
“Sometimes more is thrown away because it’s just not that good,” she said. “The quality could be better so that people are more likely to eat what they’re interested in.”
Waste on campus isn’t limited to just Foco. Hemmins also pointed out that dining locations such as Courtyard Cafe and Novack give out plastic utensils and paper plates, which can lead to students dumping plates with food residue on them in the trash. Kerfoot explained that these single-use materials can lead to waste because food contamination prevents these plates and other utensils from being recycled.
“Any recyclable goods that have food waste on [them] … or anything that isn’t just the plain recycling container actually can’t be recycled because of the processing facility constraints,” Kerfoot said. “In practicality, nobody is going to wash out their cups before they put [them] in the [recycling] bin.
As a result, used cups, plates and utensils containing food waste in these dining areas are often collectively thrown in the landfill. Even items that are recycled don’t always make it to the recycling process. Sustainability Office assistant director Marcus Welker previously told The Dartmouth that the rising costs of processing recyclables since 2016 have led the College’s industrial waste management partner, Casella Waste Systems, to implement stricter contamination thresholds.
Kerfoot is currently working with Helen Young ’25 and Tori Famularo ’26, as well as the Design Initiative at Dartmouth, to implement the Go Green Initiative, a universal compost system for Dartmouth Dining. The trio originally developed the program, which would help deal with food waste by making composting easier, as a project for ENGS 12, “Design Thinking.”
The initiative has two main components. First, all Dartmouth Dining packaging would be compostable. Second, compost bins and signage would be posted around campus to encourage students to compost. Kerfoot and her team plan to color-code compostable materials so that students can easily tell how to dispose of them.
“If you see something that’s bright green, you put it in the compost bin,” she said.
By making more of these materials compostable, it allows for greater flexibility in terms of what can be grouped together.
“All food waste can go in the compost bin, along with dry goods if they’re compostable,” Kerfoot said. “Our hope is to have everything that Dartmouth gives out be compostable.”
Kerfoot, Young and Famularo are preparing for a prototyping trial at the Fern, which currently is the only dining location on campus to use fully compostable goods. According to Kerfoot, during the trial, there will be compost bins and instructive signs added to the Fern.
Plodzik spoke optimistically about efforts on campus to minimize food waste.
“It’s … an ongoing challenge for us, and an ongoing opportunity for us to do something better,” he said.