Becca Winicour stands on her tiptoes to snag a soy yogurt off the top shelf, as Maggie Ellis, grocery scanner in hand, consults another classmate.
“I found three blueberry ones,” she said, “but they’re not even a month old.”
These University of Mary Washington seniors are enrolled in a new course called Alleviating Food Waste, which explores the root causes of unused food – a multi-billion-dollar problem in the United States – as well as ways in which it can be remedied. Hungry to learn more, students spend a few hours each week documenting expired products at the Fredericksburg Food Co-op, create tasty dishes with soon-to-be discarded items and cook up campaigns for saving imperfect produce.
“Around 40 percent of all food in our country goes to waste,” said Associate Professor of Marketing Kashef Majid, who teaches the class. “Households are the main culprit,” he said, often buying an abundance of goods they don’t use, but grocery stores, restaurants and farms are also to blame.
Majid became intrigued by the issue after watching Just Eat It, a documentary about a couple who subsist on discarded food. As a member of Mary Washington’s community engagement committee, he began brainstorming ideas for a course that would incorporate these concepts. Connecting with Co-op Chair Rich Larochelle, an adjunct instructor in UMW’s College of Business, and General Manager Chris Rowland, brought it to fruition.
Working in teams, Majid’s students catalog foods that have reached their “best by” date. The Co-op offers a discount on items less than a month beyond the specified day but is required to toss them after that. Ellis, a communication and digital studies major, was amazed to learn that food manufacturers use these dates as a marketing tactic. “People go to their pantry and think, ‘This pasta expired two weeks ago,’ ” she said, “so they run out and buy more.”
She and some of her classmates have earned academic credit by creating dishes – muffins, mini pizzas, chicken tenders, ham sliders – with ingredients on the verge of being discarded. Not only is the assignment delicious, Majid said, but he estimates they’ve saved pounds of food from going to the landfill.
Senior economics major Priyan deSilva said he was surprised to learn that stores are often reluctant to give away groceries, despite the prevalence of food insecurity and access issues. Virginia is one of nine states that allow businesses to write off such donations, but few take advantage. “Most claim they’ll be sued if someone gets sick,” Majid said, “but the Good Samaritan Act protects them from that.”
The class is also partnering with Fredericksburg restaurant FoodE to promote its use of imperfect produce, often discarded for aesthetic reasons. Winicour, a communication and digital studies major, will use her skills to help craft social media and tabletop ads to encourage diners to order dishes made with these ingredients and to track the campaign’s success.
The course has already made an impact on senior Luke Miller, who now only buys what he knows he can consume in the next several days.
A business major, he believes companies have an obligation to address the food-waste problem but feels that education on better buying behaviors is key, “so people will purchase what they actually need, rather than what they want.”