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Why is it so easy to waste food at Duke?

mind over matter

I remember opening the refrigerator in the Crowell common room last semester to find nine half-eaten Sazon meals. Yesterday, I watched as a Duke Dining employee threw away an incorrectly made Tokyo Bowl and began again. Try as some of us may to conserve resources, we waste food that many struggle to afford each day.

Food waste is a hefty and complex topic. With agricultural systems, government policies and environmental effects, the idea often feels too large for any one person to comment on. But coming back from Christmas break, I have noticed a profound difference in the way I view food production and consumption at Duke versus “in the real world.” Grocery runs are for snacks only, and the idea of preparing a meal for myself is a time luxury Organic Chemistry makes implausible. 

In addition, as a good friend of mine once argued, the preset food portion sizes on campus contributes to waste. And don’t get me started on the gendered and size-based distribution of food on campus. I have never received as much rice in my stir fry as my football player friends. My friend is right. This lack of engagement with our meals makes food waste easier and less noticeable.

Now throw in food points. Seemingly a dollar to dollar equivalency, but taxed differently. We are taxed when buying our food plans instead of every time we purchase food. Somehow the use of a Duke ID and that satisfactory ‘ding’ when paying for a three dollar granola bar can make the money—the investment—seem less real. I know it is easier for me to buy a meal I will not finish when I think in terms of food points and not dollars. 

Call it small, but this delineation between food points and dollars creates a Duke-centric, insular idea of where our food comes from and where it goes. I wonder how and if food choice practices would change if students were asked to pay for each meal with cash, credit or debit.

Maybe I am in a unique situation. With a first-year dining plan, food points are scarce, and I often envy upperclassmen with the resources to purchase food less conscientiously. Still, ostentatious displays and disposal of food for large social events is difficult to swallow.

Granted, I applaud Duke’s goals in sustainability in the kitchen. The Deliberate Dining program attempts to integrate community partners and practices like choosing organic, local foods. In this program, Duke set sustainability goals to have a percentage of food from local sources. Community partners to receive some of this food include Duke Campus Farm, Funny Girl Farm, and Endless Sun Produce. Despite these efforts and well explained initiatives, the information and steps towards eliminating food waste is convoluted or just non existent. Of Duke’s six sustainability goals, four of them are unmet.

Choosing to write this column proved difficult. Food waste is not a new issue. Often larger political events, sports, or climate crises, appear more important because of their timeliness. 

But if I had it my way, everyone would take a food based class at Duke. Food and food waste is always relevant. It affects our everyday lives and our practices around food dictate the type of environment and world we live in decades from now. Often, I can’t imagine the solution to food waste is near. If we are honest with ourselves, eliminating and reducing food waste requires more than government or Duke policies. Pushing for less wasteful food production and distribution remains important, but no good when we continue to view food as ubiquitous and disposable. If taking on food waste at large scares you like it does me, start with your own practices and mindset. Maybe pretend you have a first-year food point plan, and see how frugal and resourceful you can be.

Naima Turbes is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “mind over matter,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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