The Ghent University restaurants and cafeterias have always operated with sustainability in mind. But did you know that this is done with respect for social equity? Together with Let’s Save Food, a Ghent-based volunteer organization, they are aiming for a full-scale sustainable solution for food waste through efficient redistribution of leftovers.
Leftover food is a normal part of any restaurant or cafeteria’s operation. The same is true for the Ghent University restaurants. The high internal quality requirements that ensure visitors get fresh and tasty food every day, invariably also cause food waste and leftovers.
It’s a given that locations such as De Brug or other student restaurants aim to minimize this waste as much as possible through good planning and advanced stock management. The restaurants use products that have a long shelf life and the menu is highly flexible so our locations are always prepared for temporary closures. Sales data has also produced invaluable insights, ensuring sales figures can be accurately predicted year-round. Despite all of these steps, however, the restaurants still produce leftover food.
Dirk Covent, responsible for planning, research and stock management at the Ghent University Catering Office, explains that “prevention is the natural first step when any restaurant business is aiming to be sustainable. However, even with those measures in place, our restaurants still produce leftover food. Up until this academic year, we would look for ad hoc solutions by donating this food to a number of local social initiatives and food banks as much as possible and bringing the food to their location. These organizations then redistributed the food in select Ghent neighborhoods. We have also been donating food waste as “swill” which is processed into biomass for powerplants. However, we only do this when no other solutions are available.
To be able to combat waste in a better and more structural manner, in January, the Catering Office decided to start a pilot project with volunteer organization Let’s Save Food (LSF). They direct local volunteers from the neighborhoods to combat food waste in a sustainable fashion. LSF coordinator Filip François tells us that “the LSF neighborhood volunteer teams collect leftover food at local shops, bakeries and with residents. This food is then transported to our different distribution centers in Ghent and its municipalities, where anyone who wants it can come and collect it. Some products that LSF provides are available for a free contribution. But basic products, such as fruit, bread and vegetables, are always available free of charge.”
“Using their bicycle or cargo bike, LSF volunteers come to Ghent University to pick up leftover meals and ingredients and, in doing so, they also bring back the reusable recipients that the University provides. This ensures that the impact on our own operation is really quite minimal,” Dirk further explains. “It’s a grassroots organization and you notice a lot of drive and idealism in their volunteers. Recently, I was also really pleased to notice one of them walking around with a Ghent University facemask – it gives me hope that my colleagues are aware that combatting waste and social activism are really important.”
François agrees: “partnering with Ghent University has been a big step for us too. Definitely with regards to the increase in quality food we have available, which enables us to support more people. There’s also a lot of potential for participation: this partnership could cause an increase in people from the University joining us as volunteers, which would allow LSF to grow and would create more capacity to distribute food locally.”
He emphasizes that “corona has really made clear how important our work is. We have seen a steady rise in the number of people picking up food at our distribution centers. More and more people find themselves in a precarious economic situation which makes organizations like LSF a welcome means of support. But due to the abundance of leftover food, we don’t have to focus on those people alone. We also provide food to anyone who is just interested in decreasing their environmental impact. Ever since we started this organization, we have always strived to create an open and easily accessible environment. Everyone’s welcome at our doorstep!”
The LSF pilot project started off with two weekly collections from student restaurant De Brug and has, in the space of a couple of months, evolved into a twice-daily collection, while at the same time starting up daily or at least once weekly collections at 3 other restaurants. As soon as the other restaurants and cafeterias are allowed to reopen, the Catering Office intends to expand this operation to as many other locations as it can.
Dirk Covent smiles and concludes that “all the employees at the student restaurants at Ghent University are very proud to be a part of such a great project. Particularly since, in these uncertain times, we’re doing our part to sustainably answer one of people’s basic needs.”
Want to find out more about LSF or would you like to volunteer yourself? Check out Let’s Save Food’s website!