Through local partnerships, University of Memphis dining is dramatically reducing food waste
By Manda Gibson
One ton. Yes, that’s right—an entire, literal ton. That’s how much food waste the University of Memphis’s Tiger Den Eatery diverted from local landfills in just its first month of composting through the Compost Fairy.
Much of that is thanks to Megan Partacz, a registered dietitian who oversees dining services for the entire University of Memphis campus.
It wasn’t long ago that Megan still was in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, earning her master’s degree in food and nutrition services. After a stint working in a long-term care facility, she joined Chartwells Higher Education, a national organization that runs 17 on-campus dining spots at the University of Memphis.
In graduate school Megan had studied sustainability, but she hadn’t really seen it in action.
“I got here and saw we can actually do something about it,” she said.
Chartwells began working at the University of Memphis in July 2019.
“The main challenge was walking in with limited food recovery and food waste initiatives already set in place,” says Megan.
The Chartwells organization already had sustainability systems that they were able to employ quickly at the university.
“A system called Waste Not is implemented in most Chartwells accounts,” says Megan. “This system allows us to record and track our waste in order to work at decreasing our food waste.”
At an on-campus sustainability fair in September 2019, more possibilities for reducing food waste began brewing in Megan’s imagination. There she learned about the work that Compost Fairy already was doing on campus.
Mike Larrivee, executive director of the Compost Fairy, calls the University of Memphis a long-term success story. Campus sustainability manager Amelia Mayahi and Larrivee started working together to make the campus more sustainable about 12 years ago, when they both were University of Memphis students. The Chartwells account is the Compost Fairy’s third on campus.
“At Tiger Den we found a huge ally in Megan,” says Mike Larrivee, Compost Fairy executive director. “She’s a mover and shaker. She’s been a critical ally in food services.”
Megan and Mike worked together to come up with a composting plan for Tiger Den. Mike trained staff and placed bins behind the Tiger Den kitchen, and they got started.
At first, they had two 64-ounce Compost Fairy bins for food scraps but quickly found that the total capacity wasn’t enough. Plus, the large bins became too heavy with food scraps. So now they use six 32-ounce bins instead. The Compost Fairy team empties the bins every Tuesday and Friday.
Megan says the amount they’re composting actually has decreased over time—because composting helped them realize how much they were wasting. So they’ve started ordering less food in the first place. And they look for creative ways to reuse what they have; for example, if they cook too much chicken for dinner one night, they might chop it up to offer chicken salad for lunch the next day.
In addition to partnering with the Compost Fairy, Tiger Den has worked with the Mid-South Food Bank and the on-campus Tiger Pantry to establish food recovery and food waste initiatives.
With the Mid-South Food Bank, they participate in MealConnect, which allows hot prepared food to be donated to local charitable groups. So far, Tiger Den has donated 600 pounds of food through MealConnect.
“Megan has done a great job conducting studies, as well as beginning the conversation around the topic of food waste at the University of Memphis,” says Angela Johnson, director of donor relations at the Mid-South Food Bank. “With this new partnership with the University of Memphis and Chartwells, we are simply continuing the work by rescuing wholesome foods that might have otherwise gone to waste to help feed residents in our community that are in need.”
Tiger Pantry serves as an on-campus partner in reducing food waste. Twice a week, Chartwells donates Jack and Olive brand prepackaged salads, wraps, and snacks to the food pantry.
Alison Brown, coordinator of student outreach and support at the university, says that around 38 percent of the school’s 21,000 students experience food insecurity in any given month.
“Having a steady and reliable source of fresh, healthy, and nutritious food is so important to them,” she says. “Previously, our pantry was only able to offer shelf-stable foods. Once we formed our partnership with Chartwells and University of Memphis dining, we were able to start offering items with more vegetables and protein to meet our students’ nutrition needs.”
Megan’s job includes educating her staff and the greater University of Memphis community on sustainability initiatives.
Xavier Brock is a general utility worker at Tiger Den. He spends his days keeping tables clean, shelves stocked with Jack and Olive foods—and cheering on their sustainability initiatives.
“I’m really interested in organic chemistry and learning about more ways to recycle our food instead of throwing it away,” he says.
He acknowledges that initiatives like composting require more work, but he’s convinced the effort is worthwhile. He says that a period when he experienced homelessness helped him to develop a strong moral compass.
“You have all this food that’s wasted, and there are so many people walking around hungry,” he says.
Megan and her staff work to educate the university community through signage, tabling events, and one-on-one conversations.
“I see the atmosphere surrounding these topics improving day by day,” she says. “I have seen firsthand that our associates are invested in these initiatives. I believe they see how every single person matters in reducing food waste, along with the impact our company can have.”
Thanks to Mike’s introduction, Megan now is part of a Clean Memphis-convened group that meets regularly to talk about food waste. The group gave her a running start in understanding food waste and food recovery and how she could get involved. The group members share challenges, successes, and needs. “It’s a very cohesive conversation,” she says.
Megan’s relationship with organizations like Clean Memphis, the Compost Fairy, the Mid-South Food Bank, and Tiger Pantry have helped her see the value of partnership.
“The biggest lesson I have learned through this process would have to be that you are not alone,” she said. “Many people in your community share the same passion and want to make dreams a reality.”
As Megan continues her work at the University of Memphis, she hopes to expand their composting program and find more avenues for food donations. She’s also always on the hunt for new ideas to expand their sustainability program.
“Great conversations have been started, and I am thrilled to see where things go in the future,” she says.
1,2000 guests served daily at Tiger Den
1 ton composted with the Compost Fairy in just one month
600 pounds donated through the Mid-South Food Bank
600 units of Jack and Olive prepackaged food given to the Tiger Pantry weekly
Other ways Tiger Den is reducing waste
Ozzi containers: Instead of using Styrofoam to-go containers, Tiger Den uses an Ozzi system. A student buys a $6 reusable to-go container. When they’re finished with it, they can return it to Tiger Den’s Ozzi receptacle in exchange for a token that allows them to get another clean container when they need it. “Styrofoam is not an option,” says Megan.
No cafeteria trays: Students carry to the table only the dishes they can hold in their hands. “Not having a tray helps you not get excess food that you just end up wasting,” says Megan. Tiger Den is an all-you-can-eat facility, though, so students are welcomed to return to the line as many times as they want.
9-inch plates: Workers serve suggested “serving sizes,” not super-sized portions, and they use 9-inch plates, which are smaller than some dinner plates. Again, students can return for additional portions for no extra charge. Workers are trained to tell guests: “We’re serving the portion size to decrease food waste.”
No straws: No straws used means no straws thrown away!
What you can do
Mid-South Food Bank: If your organization is interested in partnering, contact Robert Onstad, food resource manager, at email@example.com or Angela Johnson, director of donor relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org. To become a MealConnect donor or volunteer driver, go to mealconnect.org. To learn more about the food bank’s work in 31 counties, visit midsouthfoodbank.org.
Compost Fairy: The Compost Fairy provides a host of residential and commercial composting services. They’ll work with your school or business to come up with a plan that meets your needs and then train your staff to carry it out. Plus, they’ll create a monthly diversion report for all commercial accounts to help you see what kind of difference you’re making. Learn more at compostfairy.com.