Studying food for a livable future

Princeton scientists and scholars have long forecast that without focused and sustained action, we can expect a perfect storm come mid-century or before: water shortages, food scarcity, biodiversity collapse and a burgeoning population on the move, all exacerbated by extreme weather as our planet heats.

As the new IPCC report illustrates, many immediate actions are required at federal and international levels. Research shows, however, that institutions, municipalities, families and individuals, with informed choices, can effect change locally, and with that change, build momentum for broader actions.

Two powerful choices we can make as individuals and as small groups and as institutions are reducing food waste and switching to a mainly plants-rich, minimally processed food framework.

Reducing food waste is not news; New Jersey, in 2017, established a state-wide food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030 and here’s the draft Food Waste Reduction Plan. The NJ goal is to reduce the quantity of food waste by reducing the volume of surplus food generated, feeding hungry people and feeding animals. There’s good news on plants-rich diet efforts, too; scroll down to read more on alumni efforts in the K-12 education sector.

At a more fundamental level, there is food-systems related academic progress, as well as operational progress on campus.

PRINCETON ENVIRONMENTAL INSTITUTE, with its new Food+Environment track, is at work accumulating relevant courses for study. One standout introduced last spring is American Agrarians, which explores agrarian history, philosophy, theology, and literature and is a partnership between Tessa Desmond, research scholar and lecturer in American Studies, and Nate Stucky, director of the Farminary, a 21-acre farm that is part of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Another course under development is an undergraduate seminar by Professor D. Graham Burnett that examines history, history of science, and current scientific issues related to agriculture, food production, and the human “management” of nature. These join the Environmental Nexus course taught by professors Steve Pacala and Rob Nixon; the Agriculture, Human Diets and the Environment course led by Professor Dan Rubenstein with assistance from Campus Dining under the nascent Food and Agriculture Initiative; and a list of others.

RECENT HIRES: There’s also an inspiring list of recent hires: Andrew Chignell, who has a developing interest in food ethics, and recently co-produced (with Will Starr at Cornell) a Massive Open Online Course on “The Ethics of Eating”;  Anu Ramaswami, who is helping to make the Minneapolis food system more sustainable and equitable; and Caroline Cheung, whose research focuses on the history of the Roman Empire and draws on material and textual evidence to study the socio-economic history of non-elites under Roman rule and ancient food and agriculture.

THE OFFICE OF SUSTAINABILITY, under the direction of Shana Weber, has published a Sustainability Action Plan. Its 38 pages include these choice nuggets related to food:

  • Added 262 filtered water stations;
  • Though water use has increased over the past decade (goal is to reduce by 26 percent over 2008 levels by 2046), a success, considering the high water footprint of beef compared to plant-based options, is the Princeton Crafted Burger, a part-beef, part-plant entree.
  • Recycling rate for consumer items (including mixed paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic) has gone down 23 percent since 2008, largely due to contamination of recycling stream with food scraps…but Princeton plans to reduce recycling contamination by expanding collection of food scraps beyond the current dining hall composting program to other locations on campus; and,
  • Princeton plans to continue to divert edible food to the community in efforts to reduce food waste.

However, even more important than using excess food to feed hungry people is making the right amount of food instead of an excess, according to the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy.  On that effort we support and advocate for the campus group Greening Dining and its analysis of food scrapings at dining halls and at eating clubs. We suggest expansion of the project to include calculating the general Life Cycle Analysis of each wasted food category, conducting interviews at scraping stations and in the production kitchens to determine, say, the top 10 reasons for wasted food, and, with zero waste as the goal, developing and implementing a plan to address all issues. Could this work be paired with the food waste reduction efforts under way at the state level or with the James Beard Foundation’s Food Waste Culinary Instructor Curriculum?

As progress is made toward the target of 50 percent reduction in wasted food, what of the dwindling amount of uneaten food that becomes “waste?” To reduce methane emissions, wasted food must be diverted from the landfill, if not for industrial uses to produce energy, then for composting. The best solution, in terms of waste diverted, emissions reduced and jobs created is centralized composting, according to research conducted by ReFed, a nonprofit that “takes a data-driven approach to move the food system from acting on instinct to insights to solve our national food waste problem.”

At the Office of Sustainability, Gina Talt ’15, food systems project specialist, leads the collection of a portion of food scraps produced on campus, then processes them into compost using an in-vessel biodigester. She plans to expand the program to include more campus locations and events.
Follow the Office of Sustainability on Twitter @TigersGoGreen.

CAMPUS DINING SERVICES, under the direction of Smitha Haneef, lists culinary principles (see at right), and writes that it “sources grass-fed beef and antibiotic-free, humanely treated and locally produced chicken for all residential and retail operations” and is a business partner in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Nearly 80 percent of its seafood purchases are categorized as sustainable in accordance with Seafood Watch principles.
Further, all coffee served in the residential college dining halls and in the Food Gallery at Frist has received Rain Forest Alliance certification….More than 60 percent of all food purchases are local, organic, fair trade, socially responsible, humanely treated or sustainable. Forty-six percent of all food purchases are produced within 250 miles of the university, including produce, baked goods, cheese, milk, beef, pork, poultry and eggs.”
Follow on Twitter @PrincetonDining.