UNL Dining - Building a Sustainable Dining Program

Wednesday, February 23, 2022
Written by:
Dave Annis with a biodigester
Dave Annis with a biodigester

Three years ago, the UNL Dining Services leadership team started to look beyond our day-to-day functions and find ways that our services could better contribute to the overall sustainability goals of the university. We decided to target five main areas of impact:

  • Food Sourcing
  • Food Production
  • Food Insecurity
  • Food Waste
  • Source Reduction

Food Sourcing:

Did you know that all coffee served in the dining centers and through University Catering is Arbor Day Coffee? Last year, Dining Services spent over $7M on food purchases. That level of purchasing has an immediate local economic impact as we focus more of our purchasing toward local vendors. Our Nebraska. Local. program continues to include more local vendors, adding local beef, chicken, eggs, and produce to our purchases. Invoices from the fall 2021 semester show that 7.66% of food purchases were local  up from around 4% last year.

Food Production:

Food waste can happen in many levels of the production cycle. Overproducing food, poor production practices, and letting food go out-of-date are major causes of food waste. Reducing these sources of waste not only improves our sustainability footprint, but also provides a cost savings that we’re able to pass on to students. The fact is that students fund Dining Services through meal plan and food purchases, so any opportunity where we can provide a cost savings is a win-win.

Dining can help in keeping costs in check by controlling our food costs. We’ve turned to a program called Lean Path to help us track our food production and waste. Each dining center weighs and records food production waste at every meal. Below is a high-level report of food waste combining all Dining Services operations.

Food Insecurity:

We’ve partnered with ASUN and the Husker Pantry Husker Pantry | Nebraska to provide meals for students with food insecurities. Furthermore, supporting ASUN food drives at our Herbie’s Markets toward the end of each semester encourages students to put their surplus meals to good use to help others.

In addition, we also partner with Food Net FoodNet, Inc – FoodNet, Inc of Lincoln, Nebraska. Tummy Fill, not Landfill, a local organization that provides food support to agencies across Lincoln by donating safe, good quality leftover items from the dining centers. Dining has a food safety policy that restricts us to a one-time reheating of food. If it isn’t used on the line and meets all our HACCP safety standards, we’ll flash freeze that food and donate it to Food Net instead of throwing it out.

Food Waste:

By far, our greatest success has been in reducing the amount of food waste going to the local landfill. In November 2019, we installed our first Liquid Food Composter (LFC) at Selleck Dining. Since then, LFCs have been added to Cather, Abel, and Harper Dining Centers. Anything you can eat and digest can go into an LFC. In the last 12 months the LFCs have kept 122,287 pounds of food waste from going to the local landfill. LFCs use aerobic digestion, unlike a landfill which has anerobic digestion and produces methane gas which is then burned off. In the last year the LFCs have offset 232 tons of carbon by digesting on campus and not in the landfill.  The LFCs have also decreased the number of trips to the landfill, saving time and fuel.

Due to concerns about microplastics in the environment, we were recently asked to test a new PLA chip used inside the LFCs. The new chip is 100% biodegradable with no petroleum-based components.


Cather Dining LFC with LeanPath Scale

Original Black Chips

New “Green” PLA” Chips

Source Reduction:

Dining was making progress in transitioning to reusable and sustainable packaging on campus until spring 2020. We’d introduced OZZI reusable containers, been phasing out plastic bags and straws, and were moving to the use of more compostable products. All these efforts came to somewhat of a standstill when COVID-19 necessitated closing the dining rooms and increasing take-out only options. We hope to resume to our source reduction efforts as soon as we return to operating in ways that more closely resemble pre-COVID operations.


OZZI Reusable Container