KALAMAZOO, Mich.—When the dining department at Western Michigan University was looking at ways to be more environmentally sound regarding food waste, the department’s first choice was a composting program, according to Judy Gipper, dining services director. However, with no facility nearby to handle compost for the university, the department decided to look into a different way of discarding food scraps: Feeding them to pigs. This Food Diversion Initiative (FDI) has diverted more than 39,000 pounds of waste since it began in the fall of 2012.
“We collaborated with Bear-Foot Farms, which is a well-established farm located about 25 miles from campus,” Gipper says. “We purchased and labeled all of the bins used for gathering and transporting the food waste. The farmers pick up the food waste three times per week. The farmers report that their pigs love eating the vegetable and fruit scraps. [The pigs] have learned when the truck comes with the food, and the farmers say they start running toward the truck and snorting with excitement.”
Gipper says all staff were trained to know what goes in which bin and items to look out for, like peach pits, that aren’t good for the animals. The initiative started at just one dining hall. At the end of the semester the department had collected 14,740 pounds of food scraps for the farms. For the spring semester the department expanded the program to three more dining locations. By the time summer came, the department had collected 24,850 pounds of waste for the farm.
“I anticipate that number will go up next year,” Gipper says. “We are continuing the program through the summer, but we will only have one dining hall participating. But it’s just great to think that if not for this program all of that waste would have been washed into the sewage system.
“We purchase pork from the farmers that participate in our FDI, which has been great. The farmers told us that their meat processor told them that the pork coming in is very high quality. The farmers are also pleased because now they are allowed to have a larger herd because they don’t have to buy as much feed over the winter. That’s a big thing for them because they are just a local small family farm.”
Licensed to feed: One challenge Gipper says the department ran into was that the state Department of Agriculture required that they be licensed as a livestock feeder. However, Gipper says the process of getting the license wasn’t as difficult as they thought it might be.
“We are a unique livestock feeder in that we don’t do the hauling,” Gipper says. “The Ag Department worked with us because they were figuring out how to do this type of license as well. As far as I know we are the only university in Michigan that is licensed to provide scraps for livestock feeding.”
Food safety also became a big concern since the farmers are picking up the scraps.
“We were very particular with our farmers to let them know it is not acceptable, from a food safety point of view, to bring clothes and shoes that were out on a farm into a food production kitchen,” Gipper says. “We had to teach them that they had to change their shoes and wear clean clothes into the kitchen since they are coming right into the coolers and picking up the scraps. It wasn’t a tough thing to teach them, but we wanted to make sure they were following our hygiene standards.”
Gipper says she believes one of the main factors behind the success was getting the staff to buy into the program. She made sure the staff was always aware of what was going on with the program and even let them interact with the farmers.
“Like with any change you want to let the staff know what is coming, get their input and be sure they understand the positive impact they are having,” Gipper says. “Our staff really got into it. Plus, the farmers would let us know if a sow had a litter and they’d let us name some of the pigs.”
Despite the program’s success Gipper says they haven’t given up on getting a composting program in place. This summer the department is doing a pilot to figure out the correct blend of pre- and post-consumer waste for vermicomposting. However, that doesn’t mean the Food Diversion Initiative will be ending.
“Who knows how long it’s going to take to get a composting program going?” Gipper says. “[The Food Diversion Initiative] has been so much fun and done so well that I’m sure it will be going on for a long time.”