Campus Food Waste Recovery Project co-led by COPHers earns USF Student Success Team Collaboration award

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Up to 40 percent of food that is produced in the U.S. goes to waste and it’s impacting our health, according to USF College of Public Health doctoral candidate Whitney Fung Uy.

She’s the principal investigator of an interdisciplinary USF student effort to take food waste on campus and turn it into renewable resources. Recently, master’s student in public health, Mitchell Jaskela, took on the leadership role to co-lead the project with Whitney.

The USF Campus Food Waste Recovery project received $25,600 in funding from the Student Green Energy Fund in 2018, a USF fund that supports efforts to help make USF “more environmentally friendly” and now they’ve been recognized with a USF Student Success award.

USF COPH doctoral candidate Whitney Fung Uy. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung Uy)

Food waste is a large producer of greenhouse gases once they hit landfills, according to Fung Uy.

“When food goes to the landfill, methane is produced and released into the atmosphere,” she said. “Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so when we contribute to food waste, that impacts our climate.”   

Fung Uy and a team of students including: Kara Panesar (M.S. in environmental engineering, class of 2020), Naheed Perez (B.S. in cellular and molecular biology, class of 2020), Mitchell Jaskela (MPH), Zuleika Abueg (B.S. in cellular & molecular biology), James Hunter Ireland (electrical engineering), Alec Brumfield (environmental science), Michele Olive (environmental science), Fabricio Escobar (civil engineering), and Josiah Saneda (environmental science), are aiming to divert food waste from reaching landfills and reduce methane gas emissions.

According to Fung Uy, the goal of the project is two-fold: First, to divert pre-consumer food waste from campus dining away from a landfill and into student-constructed “biodigesters”— tanks that “digest” organic material such as leftover food scraps, and captures methane gas, which Fung Uy said is also called “biogas.” The biodigesters also produce organic fertilizer. Second, to bring attention to food waste and food insecurity among college students. 

Finished biodigesters. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung Uy)

“This award from USF Student Success is very meaningful because it reminds us that our work is important and making a difference on campus,” Fung Uy said. “This collaboration award highlights the value of our interdisciplinary project and the time and effort it took to build such strong relationships among students, faculty, and staff. It’s a great honor, and it’s amazing to see how much our project has grown in the last two years, how dedicated our students are, and how supportive faculty and staff are to help us make campus more sustainable.”

Fung Uy said that in the Fall 2019 semester, they were able to divert about 1,200 pounds of food waste away from landfills and into biodigesters.

Additionally, we conducted a food systems survey to determine students’ food-related behaviors and interests and a food waste audit to assess the amount of food waste generated at Juniper Poplar [Residence Hall],” she said.

The team conducting a food waste audit at Juniper Poplar Residence Hall (Pre-COVID photo). (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung Uy)

These preliminary results were presented at conferences such as USF Health Research Day and the group is working on final papers for publication.

Fung Uy says their next steps include testing the liquid output on USF Grounds’ plot to assess feasibility of substituting purchased fertilizers with the slurry byproduct from the biodigesters; identifying use for the biogas byproduct; and disseminating educational materials including a Zero Waste Campus Toolkit and a campaign created by a student-led marketing agency from the School of Advertising and Mass Communications, SAGO, under the direction of Mr. Kevin Hawley.

When COVID-19 hit, food waste pick-ups were halted for both the spring and summer 2020 semesters, according to Fung Uy.

“During that time, we pivoted some of our work by preparing manuscripts for publication and planned various activities to raise awareness of food waste recovery and our project such as hosting our first town hall,” Fung Uy said. “In fall 2020, we resumed food waste pick-ups while adhering to COVID safety precautions and continued weekly virtual meetings. A new resource that we are working on is developing a Zero Waste Campus Toolkit so the community can continue working towards zero waste and food waste reduction even if our project is not around, as funding will be over soon.”  

“Feeding” the biodigesters manure. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung Uy)

Fung Uy said she is thankful to all the individuals who helped to make this project happen, especially USF facilities management, grounds, and dining services especially Champion’s Choice dining hall which is where they coordinate the food waste pick up.

“Facilities management staff, especially Suchi Daniels, work with us to make sure we have all the appropriate approvals, connect us with other departments, and provide resources to make sure we can complete our tasks. Dining Services has always been supportive in becoming more sustainable and reducing food waste; they’ve provided many resources and time to help us carry out many of the tasks,” she said.

Team field trip with Student Government staff and leaders, Facilities Management staff, and USF Dining Services staff to see biodigester at work (Pre-COVID photo). (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung)

“We appreciate the SGEF Council’s recognition of this important work, and we hope that our project can promote more sustainable initiatives around campus in the future,” she said. “Food waste recovery is like recycling, but we currently do not have the structure to support food waste recovery. Our project provides an example for campus or other entities to scale up the food waste recovery operation. Our vision is a zero-waste campus that actively adopts sustainable initiatives to tackle climate change. We need to do more about food waste and food loss instead of throwing it away.”

Fung Uy said she is also thankful for the following:

Faculty advisors: Drs. Jennifer Marshall (COPH), Sarina Ergas (Civil & Environmental Engineering), Thomas Culhane (Patel College), and David Himmelgreen (Dept. of Anthropology) and staff advisors: Suchi Daniels (Facilities Management), Ryan McElhaney (USF Dining Services), and Jessica Cicalese (USF Dining Services). Faculty and staff collaborators including Scott Grace from athletics, Matt Marshall from the Marshall Student Center, Ray Miller (USF Grounds), Andy Olson (USF Grounds), Ray Gonzalez (Facilities Management), Chris Martin (Facilities Management), Tobin McCall (Facilities Management), and faculty Drs. Mahmooda Pasha, Russell Kirby, Laurel Graham (Sociology), Jennifer Friedman (sociology), Babu Joseph (Engineering), and Mr. Dell DeChant (Religious Studies). Many other students, faculty, and staff have volunteered their time and expertise to provide advice. Community partners that have supported our efforts include Travis Barnes (Hillsborough County Recycling Coordinator), Elizabeth Leib (Tampa Bay Farm 2 School), and TBD Cafe@301.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health