One Size Feeds All

By Felicia Kuan, Kennedy Murphy, Rachel Napolitan, Elena Wagner-Bagues, Sened Haddad | April 25, 2017 | Updated: April 25, 2017

I am staring at my plate, and I can hear my father’s voice in my head, “we don’t waste food in this house.” My plate is still halfway full, but I am completely full. As a final attempt to not have the chicken on my plate die in vain, I ask if any of the people sitting with me would like some of my food, but they all decline as they still have food on their plates as well. I am in the dining hall in the Benson Memorial Center at Santa Clara University. I walk over to the compost bin and guiltily scrape perfectly edible food into a compost bin that’s almost overflowing with other people’s food waste. I convince myself that it is not my fault, that they serve us too much food, and the food is not being wasted, it is being composted. But I still can not help but feel bad.

The dining services at Santa Clara are responsible for feeding a number of different kinds of students with different eating habits and dietary needs. Not to mention people who have dietary restrictions, it could be generally assumed that athletes require more calories than non-athletes and males eat more than females. To ensure everyone is fed, the dining hall often serves large portion sizes and provides meal plans with a great deal of points.  

In an effort to “practice responsible consumerism and develop a culture of sustainability,” Santa Clara University provides many “recycling and landfill waste containers in Santa Clara’s main dining hall” for post consumer waste and promises students that “the Resident Dining Plan is designed as a quarterly allocation to meet the dining needs of the resident student” (SCU Dining Services). Despite these missions, SCU dining services design portions with the assumption that all students have the same dietary needs and in culmination with the meal-point system, leads to substantial food waste and works against their mission of providing sustainable food.

On a positive note, Santa Clara University recognizes that humans are social animals and uses this fact to do its best to facilitate a welcoming environment and develop a close-knit community. To achieve this, the university built only one dining hall where students of all ages are forced to frequent and potentially get to know each other. While this is a noble effort, a negative side effect of this decision is that by human nature, people are influenced by each other.

Santa Clara University’s Dining Hall – Benson

In terms of food consumption, people are shown to alter the size of food consumption relative to the portion size of people they are eating with. In this experiment, which was conducted by two psychologists who work at the Department of Econometrics and the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, respectively, participants are given suggestions on the portion sizes by either a member of their in-group or a stranger. Then, they indicate how much food they are going to eat by serving themselves. The more familiar and friendlier consumers are with the people suggesting, the stronger the effect of their suggestion is (Versluis, Papies).

Appetite is also affected by one’s visual perception of the amount of food on the plate. A well-known optical illusion called the “Ebbinghaus illusion” shows that objects appear smaller when presented with a large background and vice versa. Similarly, the same amount of food appears less when placed on a larger container, whether it be a plate, bowl, or spoon, according to a study by two scientists holding PhDs (Giblin). Thus, the larger ceramic plates that the dining services use to serve to students eating in Benson may bias consumption volume and cause students to eat more and grab more food than they usually would to fill up the plate. This would consequently lead to more waste because they are even less likely to finish all the food on the plates in the future. 

These psychological and social effects are shown to be minimal on their own, but over time are capable of establishing “a type of social norm about what is an appropriate amount to consume” (Robinson, Oldham, …). This is dangerous because the portion sizes normalized at SCU are not necessarily fit for every student. In an informal survey we conducted among ourselves and friends, we concluded that the majority of people are incapable of finishing what is served to them on their plates, proving that SCU portion sizes are only “one-size-feeds-all” because it is larger than the “normal” amount an “average” student will consume.

By the very nature of the portion sizing system, more than half of the students are meant to throw some of the food away, and the minority of student athletes who have to eat a lot will be able to go on diets for the final two weeks of the quarter. The psychological and social effects slowly train students to purchase and consume more food, which directly leads to more waste, especially when more than half of the students are now used to throwing away so much of their food. The current state of the meal point system and portion sizing facilitate a social norm of overloading one’s plate and throwing leftover food away.

Started receiving snapchats from friends who started recognizing the food waste problem right in front of their eyes.

This is not to say social norms are all negative. Social norms can very well have positive benefits as well. Through proper socialization increased education about how harmful food waste is, Santa Clara University is fully capable of fostering social norms that supports its mission of sustainability (such as no littering, throwing things away into the right garbage cans, using less to-go boxes, leaving less food on the plate). They simply have to put in more effort to better facilitate these positive social norms.

Santa Clara’s food system at Benson uses a number of different food preparation practices. Benson prepares food with cook-to-order, pre-cooked, and pre-packaged operations. An example of the cook-to-order practice used in Benson is at Sauté: students pick out ingredients such as protein and vegetables they want with their pasta or rice-bowl for chefs to cook on the spot. On the other hand, we see pre-cooked food at La Parilla in the mornings with their breakfast food or in 540’s pre-made pasta and pizza. Similarly, there is pre-made food that Benson offers that they make and package before selling like fruit cups, vegetable cups, or yogurt parfaits.

From all these preparation practices, one may think the cook-to-order system seems like there would be less waste, but experiments show otherwise. A group of students at Western Michigan University conducted a study to find out more about food waste at their school and found that their cook-to-order food system had actually wasted more food than their buffet-style system at another location (Merrow). While we cannot quite figure out which food system SCU uses that causes the most amount of food because there is only one central location SCU offers food, we do know that SCU has tried to address some of their waste issues.

SCU has taken steps in the right direction to improve and promote sustainability on the campus in respect to food on campus. SCU’s Dining Services tries promoting sustainable food like offering “locally grown produce, cage-free eggs, hormone-free milk, and antibiotic-free chicken” as well as Fair Trade coffee and teas (SCU Food & Dining). The Forge Garden, established in 2008 on the SCU campus, provides the Marketplace with fruits and vegetables that students eat everyday. Dining Services provides students with a variety of vegetarian and vegan options, and rewards sustainable students in several ways. It offers students a ten-cent discount at the cafes around campus if they bring their own reusable mug. It also offers an eco-tray that students can use a five-dollar refundable deposit on to use a reusable tray that students can use and exchange for a clean one when needed. SCU also places compost along with recycling and landfill bins for students to put their waste. For food that Benson pre-cooks but does not use, SCU has established a chapter of Food Recovery Network on the campus, so the food staff packages and delivers leftover food to Martha’s kitchen, a San Jose soup kitchen. 

Other colleges and universities have taken regular steps to improve sustainability on their campuses and some have even gone beyond what has become normal sustainable efforts, coming up with new ways to use food waste as energy. Several University of California campuses have been doing to address the food waste problem. For example, UC Davis has been “converting up to 50 tons of organic waste – including from UC Davis dining halls, animal facilities and grounds – to 16,000 kWh of renewable electricity each day, diverting about 20,000 tons of waste from local landfills each year” (Rosenberg). While not all schools may be able to do this due to space, resources, or funding, schools can and do what they can to decrease food waste. In the study by the students at Western Michigan University, they found that the school “dining halls are self-serve, so that students can select their own portions, based on how hungry they are, so that they do not waste food” (Merrow). Students use nine-inch plates, which is smaller than the average American dinner plate of twelve inches. Smaller plates limit both the amount of food students can take at once and the effect of the Ebbinghaus illusion that make food portions appear smaller than they truly are. They also allow more choice, as students can always go back for more food if they desire to. Big changes and new ideas like the ones implemented at UC Davis has made are great, but simple changes can also go a long way. 


These small changes can start by offering smaller portions or serving in a way that allows students to have more control over the amount of food that they get in Benson. In our questionnaire targeting undergraduates at Santa Clara University, approximately three quarters of our thirty one respondents reported that they threw away more than ten percent of their food, with a quarter saying that they disposed of nearly 25%. Of those 31 people 67.7% were female (21 out of 31), 29% male (9 out of 31), 22.6% were athletes (7 out of 31), and 77.4% were not athletes (24 out of 31).  This group is certainly not a representation of the entire Santa Clara University student body, but the amount of food waste reported is staggering considering how the results of our survey averages out to about 16.22% of food thrown away per meal, per student. Even if our respondents may have exaggerated a little while filling out our survey, these results are high enough to elicit discussion for what could be done to reduce food waste on campus.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 3.01.09 PM
Survey results that show meal plan options, average amount of food leftover, and whether or not students save or dispose their leftovers.

There isn’t just one specific place that could make adjustments to food size options, but for the sake of reducing food waste, every cafe in Benson could potentially offer different sizes for the food they serve. As shown in our questionnaire, 54.7% of those whoScreen Shot 2017-04-25 at 5.02.35 PM answered  reported that they most of the time and sometimes have left over food. The simplest solution to this problem is to serve smaller portion sizes. The image to the right is a half size of pasta served at Sauté, but from the looks of it, the serving looks much more like a full size and I did not end up finishing the entire dish. While it is a step in the right direction to offer a half size at Sauté, specific serving spoon sizes would be beneficial in order to serve the correct size to the customer.

But why is Sauté the only place that offers different sizes? The servings at La Parilla for example are all pretty large and only offer one size. The same goes for California Deli, the dining hall’s option for sandwiches, having the option to order a half of a sandwich would reduce waste as well. However, I think the largest plate served in the Benson dining hall would be the Bistro Special, which only offers one size. Personally, I have never finished an entire plate of the special and I have never seen any of my friend’s finish one either. The questionnaire concluded that 18 out of the 31 students proposed smaller portion sizes as their main solution to counter the problem of food waste.

Not only are large portion sizes potentially wasteful, they can also lead to overeating and increase obesity among adults. According to the Dairy Council of California, being careless and consuming too many calories “can pack an extra 10 pounds of weigh
t per year!” (“Correct Portion Sizes…”) For example, a handful of grain, two fist-fulls of vegetables, and just enough protein to fit on your palm is sufficient calories for most people. (See Chart below). Seeing these amounts, most students agree that SCU portions definitely exceed that. If SCU Dining Services truly wishes to live up to their mission of providing the students with the best food choices available, they should take the problem of portion sizing more seriously because it is not just a problem of environmental health and sustainability, it is also an issue of student health.


In addition to reducing portion sizes, there are other steps the Santa Clara University dining hall can take to improve sustainability. While there is quite a bit of food being wasted in our dining hall, it is very common for students to not want to save their left overs due to excess amount of dining hall points left at the end of each quarter. So, why save it? This then lead me to the question, why aren’t there more flexible options for meal plans? Of the students who took the survey, 90% were first year students, and there are only two meal plans for first years to choose from, there are problems with both. For students who are avid eaters, they typically run out of meal points with a week or two left in the quarter. If these students ever have leftover food, they could benefit from saving their left overs. Present at every table is a trifold that says, “We encourage you to use to-go containers,” but the issue with that statement is that there are no sufficient to go containers, simple compostable plates with no lid. Not having to go containers reduces the desire to bring back leftover food and create a malodorous, tiny living space. These students could also benefit from having a meal plan with more points, or even different portions of food for a lesser cost. As for the students who have hundreds of points left over at the end of the quarter, having a dining plan that issues less than 1500 meal points would be advantageous for this category of students.

A to-go rice-bowl order with chosen vegetables from Sauté.

Alternatively, SCU can also create a food bank on campus like Rowan University for  students who do not have enough meal points to purchase food (“Rowan…”). Points can be donated throughout the quarter, not just at the end, to help purchase food for city food banks, employees, and fellow students that cannot afford it. This creates a legitimate food deposit for students who constantly have too many points, providing us an opportunity to purchase a sandwich at something like the California Deli and donate half of it that we know we will never finish. As SCU is a much richer university, the donated food can also be given to its workers at finally giving us an opportunity to show appreciation towards them for cleaning up after rowdy and rambunctious college students every single day.

Benson is a location that all SCU students frequent. It is a place that many students spend late nights and run through grabbing coffee on their way to class. But it is also a place that there is an ample amount of waste. And it is supposed to be place that we students should all know and love, but why do most people cringe and complain at the mere mention of “Benson food”?

This is because, like me, most students have eaten too much Benson food that we’d want to puke it right out. There have been times where I have waited until 9:00pm to get food on Tapingo delivery so that it would spend some extra points in delivery fees. Or gotten food not because I was hungry, but because I was walking past Benson and thought about the number of points I had left in my account. I am constantly forced to spend on food that is unnecessary, and Benson has become less of a cafeteria for me. Instead, it is more an obligation to splurge on meal points and participate in this decadence of blowing nearly $20 per a meal and tossing most of this perfectly well-made food into the bin just because I have money and I can do so.

For all the efforts that SCU takes to be sustainable and advertise the efforts that they take to be sustainable, they still have many issues. Walking into Benson any time of the day, there are plates stacked higher than the garbage and compost bins, often with half of the food still on the plate. Students have no necessity to save leftover foods because of the large number of points students have at the end of each quarter that they are trying to spend and they have little control of the amount of food that they get from Benson.


Through all of this, Benson labels themselves as sustainable. There are flyers and signs throughout the dining area about how they are working to be sustainable. But as hard as they work to locally source food, provide organic options, and be “sustainable,” they do not address the one thing that students often complain about – meal points and food plans. As a first year, I can choose between two plans. And as someone who has been on both, they are too large for me and lead to waste of food on my part. So why can’t we have more control over our food plans? Or the amount of food served on our plates? Until the day that SCU Dining addresses all of the issues we have raised, can Benson really call themselves “sustainable” or are they simply working to be?

Works Cited & References

“Correct Portion Sizes: How to Keep Portion Distortion in Check.” Healthy Eating. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Giblin, Colleen. “The Large Plate Mistake.” Food and Brand Lab. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Merrow, Kylie, Philip Penzien, and Trevor Dubats. Exploring Food Waste Reduction in Campus Dining Halls (2012): n. pag. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Robinson, Eric, Melissa Oldham, Imogen Cuckson, Jeffrey M. Brunstorm, Peter J. Rogers, and Charlotte A. Hardman. Visual Exposure to Large and Small Portion Sizes and Perceptions of Portion Size Normality: Three Experimental Studies. Sciencedirect.comAppetite, 1 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.   

“Rowan University Opens Food Bank on Campus.” 6ABC Philadelphia. ABC Inc., 23 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Rosenberg, Alec Newsroom. UC. “College Campuses Take on Food Waste.” University of California. N.p., 10 May 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Versluis, Iris, and Esther K. Papies. “The Role of Social Norms in the Portion Size Effect: Reducing Normative Relevance Reduces the Effect of Portion Size on Consumption Decisions.” Frontiers in Psychology. Frontiers Media S.A., 31 May 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


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