Whitney Fung leads student effort to reduce USF’s food waste

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You may want to think twice before throwing that banana peel away.

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 student Whitney Fung.

She’s the principal investigator of an interdisciplinary USF student effort to take food waste on campus and turn it into renewable resources.

The USF Campus Food Waste Recovery project received $25,600 in funding from the Student Green Energy Fund, a USF fund that helps aid efforts to help make USF “more environmentally friendly.”

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

“When food goes to the landfill, methane is 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.”   

About 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with college campuses producing about 22 million pounds of food each year. (Photo source: Google Images)

“As consumers we are a part of the food system and we need to be more aware of the food that we consume and the food that we throw away,” Fung said. “Recent climate reports indicate that we only have about 12 years to change our habits before the climate gets worse.”

Fung and her colleagues, Philip Dixon (College of Engineering), Li Zhu (Patel College of Global Sustainability) and Gviana Goldberg (Department of Anthropology) are aiming to divert food waste from reaching landfills and reduce methane gas emissions.

USF College of Public Health doctoral student Whitney Fung (center) holds up the approved proposal. From left: Robin Rives (undergrad in environmental science and policy), Li Zhu (USF alumnus with a master’s from the Patel College of Global Sustainability), Whitney Fung, Gviana Goldberg (undergrad in anthropology and women’s studies), and Shelby Peterson (undergrad in engineering). Team members not pictured: Sam Gibbons and Phillip Dixon. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung)

They plan to do this in three phases with step one being the implementation of “biodigesters”— tanks that “digest” organic material such as leftover food scraps, and captures methane gas, which Fung said is also called “biogas.” The biodigesters also produce organic fertilizer.

That same methane gas, according to Fung, can be used to fuel fleets of golf carts and other machinery on USF grounds, as well as be used for cooking fuel during campus events. The fertilizer, Fung adds, can be used in place of synthetic fertilizers for maintaining campus greenery. The project aims to explore the potential options of biogas use on campus.

“This is a feasibility study to potentially scale up an anaerobic biodigester on campus,” Fung said. “We envision this project to be instrumental in supporting current USF sustainability efforts with significant impact on promoting student wellness, environmental awareness, and campus engagement about an important local and global issue.”

Building of the biodigesters, which Fung said is going to cost them about $6,000, is set commence in January. They will be building three out of four proposed biodigesters near the main office of USF Facilities and collecting food scraps from Champions Choice dining hall, across from the recreation center.

Solar CITIES IBC Biodigester developed by Dr. T.H. Culhane. Biodigesters aid in anaerobic digestion, a process where organic material is broken down by microorganisms in the absence of oxygen, according to Fung. The process occurs naturally in the environment and mimics the same process of a human stomach breaking down food. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Fung)

Once those systems of collection and production are in place, phase two—evaluation—can begin.

Fung said that USF Facilities is willing to invest in the project, using the methane biogas and fertilizer if the project proves to show a reasonable return on investment, and Aramark—USF’s dining services provider—has also agreed to provide all the food waste needed for the project.

The use of anaerobic biodigesters on college campuses is not a new idea, according to Fung, with places such as UC Davis and Michigan State University already using it. 

Fung said the project will wrap in phase three with efforts to promote behavior changes to reduce food waste across campus among students—an area where public health social marketing comes in to play.

“We’re collecting data to develop a social marketing campaign to reduce food waste behaviors,” she said.

Fung, who earned her bachelor’s in nutrition and master’s in family, youth and community sciences from the University of Florida, said pursuing her doctoral degree in public health has helped her to combine her passions of public policy and health outcomes.

She said the vision for the project is to see zero waste produced and more food diverted from landfills on a larger scale, with all recycling centers and bins potentially one day including a compartment for food waste as well. 

“The vision is for a more sustainable campus and for our food environment to promote local food practices. Campus is a way to practice what we preach, we should be thinking about where our food is coming from and the food we throw away and is wasted, because it impacts our environment,” she said. “USF can be a role model for other places as well.”

Students interested in volunteering to assist with building biodigesters can contact Whitney Fung at whitneyfung@health.usf.edu.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health