Scrape-Your-Plate Day 


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iStock photo by AndreyPopov

Ania Szczesniewski

A half-eaten sandwich, a cookie missing one bite, and a pile of breakfast potatoes mosey down the tray return to join a heap of other wasted food friends. I’ve often tried to mentally piece together those slices of cake, those bagels, those grape vines, and visualize what Vanderbilt’s post-consumer waste adds up to.

Last semester, a Vanderbilt Food Justice (VFJ) and Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR) collaboration called Scrape-Your-Plate day gathered data from a day’s worth of post-consumer waste at the Commons, where to-go was not an option.

For one full day, volunteers stood by the tray return and redirected everyone’s solid food waste into bins that were weighed at the end of each meal period. The amount of food wasted on March 23, 2017 came to a grand total of 593.25 lbs. In other words, each student wasted about a third of their meal, or 0.3 lbs. As a point of comparison, the first school to run a Scrape-Your-Plate Day, The University of Colorado at Boulder, a school four times larger than Vanderbilt with an all-you-can-eat-cafeteria, wasted 0.2 lbs per student at lunch and 0.16 lbs of food per student during dinner in 2016, less than half of what Vanderbilt wastes.

A second Scrape-Your-Plate day was held on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. This time, 509.10 lbs of food were wasted from the opening to closing of Commons’ cafeteria. On average, the students wasted about a fourth of their meal, or 0.23 lbs of food per swipe, with lunch garnering the bulk of the day’s waste. Although the numbers amount to a 14.2% decrease from the first S-Y-P event, it has yet to be determined whether this is a natural fluctuation or an indication that students are more mindful about minimizing food waste.

SPEAR’s Vice President of Dining, Rachel Flores, hopes that a reoccurring Scrape-Your-Plate Day will give people a sense of how much food is wasted on the average weekday and whether or not there is an upward or downward trend in post-consumer food waste.

“I am hoping that it is an event that keeps happening every semester and maybe more often than that, because I feel it is very effective at raising awareness about food waste on the consumer side,” said Flores. “Hopefully, with this event and the new compost program, food waste will become a topic that is on a lot of people’s minds.”


Meal Period Pounds of Postconsumer Food Waste Number of Meal Swipes Pounds Wasted Per Swipe
Breakfast 97.9 612 0.15
Lunch 225.9 892 0.25
Dinner 185.3 682 0.27
Grand Total 509.1 2186 0.23


Originally, Scrape-Your-Plate Day was designed to encourage students to reduce their consumption by raising awareness about exactly how much is left uneaten on the consumer-side. However, the October 24 event also allowed student volunteers to draw attention to the new compost pilot at Commons Cafeteria. Until recently, Vanderbilt was unable to form a partnership with Nashville’s only commercial composting company, The Compost Company, due to unclear regulations. This changed last year when the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) clearly outlined in their regulations as to what qualifies as a compost company and how it is to operate. With The Compost Company no longer lumped in the same category as landfills and having a permit from TDEC to be a compost facility as of January, Vanderbilt received the clarity it needed to move forward with a business partnership and, ultimately, implement a compost pilot.

The pilot program is running for six weeks, ending in the first week of December. At which point, Vanderbilt Dining, Plant Operations, and other relevant administrative parties will review the pilot and decide whether to continue with the program.

Thus far, there have not been any major issues, but the point of the pilot is to better understand where problems could arise in the process. If Commons composting is approved beyond the pilot phase, Campus Waste and Recycling Manager Matt Buckley envisions composting expanding to other dining halls on campus as well as adding compost bins to residential spaces.

Composting helps repurpose leftovers into something valuable, but today the US disposes of nearly half of its food supply, according to the USDA. The toll that our industrial agriculture takes on our nation’s piggy bank, the environment, and workers is wasted if it’s for the sake of unnecessary, extra food. If we still have hungry citizens, we need to figure out a better way to distribute food to those who need it. The US could use more compost, but it does not need a lot more. It is easy to forget the big picture that every bite of our meal plan connects us to.

In reality, most people don’t look twice at the leftovers on the Commons tray return, but these so-called scraps aren’t waste unless they’re wasted.The results of Scrape-Your Plate Day should remind us that “recycle” and “reuse” are our last resorts: “reduce” is our first priority.

iStock photo by AndreyPopov