Mountains of Food. Piles of Plastic. A Princeton senior documents a culture of leftovers

student sitting on steps
Posted on February 1, 2018

by Jared Flesher

While on campus, Patrick Rooney ‘18 thinks of himself as a sort of hunter-gatherer. He belongs to no eating club, subscribes to no dining plan. Rather, he explains, “I frequent the freefood listserv.”

As do 2,804 other members of the Princeton community, Rooney receives an email notification every time free food goes up for grabs. This bounty is often the leftovers from catered events, seminars, and conferences—and it’s an extremely common occurrence. On most days, the listserv details multiple scavenging opportunities. Typical posts describe “a large tray of chicken stir fry in Holder Kitchen,” “Turkish food in Wilson Commons,” and “Nutella pizza, cheesecake and cannoli in Whitman Common Room.”

dessert leftovers Dessert leftovers advertised on the FreeFood Listserv

When Rooney gets hungry, he simply starts checking his phone and then turns his bike toward the nearest food drop. During his travels around campus, he’s come to a fairly straightforward conclusion: “There’s always too much food.” He’s been amazed to find towering stacks of pizza boxes filled with uneaten slices, and disheartened by the deluge of disposable plastic clamshells that inevitably get thrown away after each catered event.

food leftovers More food leftovers. Photo from the freeload listserv.

As a visual arts student with an interest in journalism and storytelling, Rooney began to consider whether his foraging experiences might yield an interesting independent project. So in September, at the encouragement of professor Eve Aschheim, he began taking photos of the leftover food platters from which he’s been snacking. He also began to encourage users of the freefood listserv to post more food photos of their own. The idea caught on, and ever since Rooney has been collecting and cataloging images of uneaten food, with the goal to create a visual record from a full academic year.

Once the project is complete, Rooney hopes to create a giant collage of the most striking images and display it at a prominent place on campus. In the meantime, he’s gained a small but growing reputation as ‘that guy’ collecting food waste photos. He’s been invited to participate in no less than three on-campus conferences this year that touch on sustainability issues, including the Princeton Studies Food Conference in February.

pizza boxes Leftover pizza. Photo from the freeload listserv.

Rooney is not the first Princeton student to notice the ocean of uneaten food and plastic packaging floating around campus. Part of his inspiration for the project came from a November 2016 essay in The Daily Princetonian by undergraduate Kyle Berlin ‘18. In it, Berlin grapples with the paradoxes of the sustainable food seminar that wastes food, the environmental conference that flies in presenters from across the globe, and the fancy charitable dinner that spends more on catering expenses than it donates to charity.

The University has also noticed—and begun to react. Last fall, Campus Dining began donating uneaten food from several campus dining halls to a non-profit that distributes it to people in need. And University Catering also sends its uneaten food to be composted rather than to a landfill.

But that’s not to say the problem is solved. Food left out at events can’t be donated due to food safety requirements. Many conferences and seminars are catered by off-campus services that still use heaps of disposable plastic. And even the most thoughtful event hosts generally default to making sure there’s more than enough food for all their guests. This seems to be both good hospitality—and a culturally entrenched source of the problem.

food leftovers

As for Rooney, he hopes his photo project will not only raise awareness about wastefulness, but also prompt more University organizations to action—as a start, he’d like to see groups take the simple step of serving a more moderate amount of food at events. That’s because, despite the freefood listserv, he still sees a “grotesque” amount of perfectly good food going into the trash. “People don’t always come and take it,” he says. “And if it’s not taken within a certain amount of time, a lot of departments will just throw the food out.”

Is your department interested in hosting events on campus that waste less and recycle more? Please visit our Green Your Event page for ideas.