Going green is more than a slogan for the University of Houston. For years, campus sustainability has been championed by staff, faculty and students alike. In recent years, the work of UH Dining Services has stood out among the university’s many sustainability initiatives. From fighting food waste to fighting food insecurity, UH is raising the bar on what it means to go green.
Food Waste Solutions That Work
Food waste is a major problem for our country as a whole, but the problem is especially visible on college campuses. With an array of choices presented to students, and the new-found freedom to eat as much as they want of whatever they want, the average college student creates 142 pounds of food waste per year. Multiply that by the total number of students on the average campus and it adds up to a whole lot of wasted food. But that’s all changing at the University of Houston, thanks to an incredibly simple initiative.
Since 2009, UH Dining Services have operated on a tray-less system. Without a tray, students no longer grab a portion of everything in sight. Instead, the tray-less system encourages them to evaluate the available choices and take only what they really want.
According to Melissa Halstead, UH’s Sustainability Coordinator, students have had no complaints. They understand that the tray-less system isn’t about encouraging them to eat less—they’re welcome to make multiple trips for food. Instead, it’s about encouraging them to eat in portions that won’t lead to excessive waste.
And this simple example of campus sustainability is working. In 2016, the University of Houston diverted 39,763 pounds of waste from its dining halls and on-campus restaurants.
Reducing Waste Through Changing Habits
The university’s dining services aren’t just fighting food waste. Various campus sustainability programs also center on reducing other forms of waste. One of the most innovative is the To-Go Container program. For a $5 deposit, students receive a reusable to-go container to use in the dining hall. Once used, they can return the container to the dining hall or any on-campus convenience store in exchange for a new container, a key tag to redeem a new container later, or their $5 back.
This program not only reduces Styrofoam waste on campus (the school aims to eventually eliminate Styrofoam entirely), but also further reduces food waste by giving students the option to take leftovers home. According to Halstead, this program has been so popular that they sometimes run out of reusable containers—at which point they break out compostable versions until reusables are back in circulation.
Growing Food for Good
Campus sustainability efforts at the University of Houston aren’t just about bettering the school’s ecological footprint. Students are also using the concept of urban farming to make a difference in their community.
Many neighborhoods in Houston’s 3rd Ward, where the university is located, are food deserts – areas where residents lack easy access to grocery stores and, therefore, to fresh, nutritious food. In response to this, student volunteers maintain an organic garden on campus with help from Urban Harvest, a nonprofit that provides support and education on urban farming.
Using techniques such as crop rotation and organic methods of pest control, the garden produces an array of fruits and vegetables—from zucchini to cantaloupe—that the students donate to local shelters Star of Hope and Manna House.The students also maintain a pollinator garden which helps bolster the local bee population and aids in fertilizing their crops.
Even for a campus so focused on sustainability, the University of Houston’s Dining Services stand out thanks to the simple, but effective, methods they’ve found for reducing waste and conserving resources. Halstead says that about half of the suggestions the school receives for new sustainability initiatives come from the student body—a sign that students are learning as much from the university’s eco-conscious endeavors as they are in the classroom.
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All images via University of Houston Office of Sustainability