Food Waste Recovery Initiative: Clemson Creative Inquiry sponsored by Sonoco FRESH

June 8, 2020

By Kristy Pickurel

During the spring of 2020, Clemson students Shemar Bryant, Maddyson Frierson, Caroline Joseph and Emily White, led by the university’s Recycling Manager Dave VanDeventer, participated in a Creative Inquiry (CI) sponsored by Sonoco FRESH to document the current life cycle of food waste on campus. The goal of their effort, the Clemson Food Waste Recovery Initiative, was to develop a guide that prioritizes actions to prevent or divert food waste from landfills.

The team researched colleges and universities across the United States that are considered leaders in the areas of the EPA Hierarchy of Food Recovery – institutions that implement actions at the top levels of the hierarchy, which are considered the best ways to prevent and divert wasted food because they create the most benefits for the environment, society and the economy. The project highlighted the programs that the team believed stood out and could benefit, and potentially be implemented at, Clemson.

Clemson has seen many successes when it comes to reducing food waste, but there is always room for improvement. Trayless dining has been implemented on campus, but according to rising junior Caroline Joseph, “people see the dining hall as an all you can eat buffet and they don’t think twice about throwing away the food they don’t like or loading up their plates with more than they know they are going to eat.” The CI team identified Clemson’s composting program as one of the university’s strong suits when it comes to food waste reduction and would love to see the program expand to non-dining hall locations on campus, such as Chick-fil-A and Subway.  Most of Clemson’s athletic programs have steadily approached zero waste. In fact, Clemson secured first place in the Game Day Recycling Challenge in 2014, 2017 and 2018. The challenge is an annual event where colleges and universities across the nation complete to see who can recycle or reduce the most waste during football games. 123,661 pounds of trash were recycled during Clemson’s 2018 home football games.

One area the CI students discussed at length was food donation. Currently, Clemson donates perishable and non-perishable goods to the Golden Corner Food Pantry in Seneca, SC. Thus far, 22,000 lbs. of items have been donated for the 2019-2020 school year. The university also supports the Paw Pantry, a student-run, on-campus space offering supplies of food and hygiene products. While the school holds food drives and encourages students to use their Paw Points/Tiger Stripe balances to benefit the pantry, the pantry cannot offer perishable goods like produce, milk or meat. According to CI student Caroline Joseph, “There are a lot of food safety issues, storage problems and a lack of transportation that feed into the inability to donate all of our leftover food. There are so many other schools around the same size as Clemson that have excellent donation programs to food pantries on campus and in the surrounding areas, so we know it’s possible.” The CI team would like to see Clemson create a Food Recovery Network, similar to what Northern Arizona University (NAU) has done. A professional nonprofit with 230 chapters across the United States, Food Recovery Network is the largest student movement fighting food waste and hunger in America. NAU started its initiative in 2014 and recovers approximately 4,000 lbs. of hot food every semester and donates it to local food banks. “When we look at donating food at Clemson, the first challenge would be knowing when food is available to donate. The second would be how we collect it and transport it safety,” explained VanDeventer. “I am hoping it can become a collaborative effort where student volunteers can be directly involved.”

Getting students to volunteer is both a challenge and an opportunity at Clemson. According to Joseph, “I think the biggest challenge for reducing food waste is getting people motivated and educated about the issue. If students don’t care because of a lack of knowledge, nothing is going to change. Though the dining halls and composting centers can do some things about food waste, the students are really the ones in control. We have the means and the motivation to do a lot of good for the community, but people just don’t know about the issue or don’t understand the severity of it.”

There are absolutely opportunities to learn more about the food waste issue, and/or to get involved with campus efforts. For more information on how waste is handled at Clemson, visit Also, Dave VanDeventer and FRESH graduate research assistant Ana Romero will be leading another CI project this fall, this time with a focus on the disposal of packaging. Sustainability has become a hot topic among consumers, who demand that the products they purchase have sustainable packaging. Yet the professionals who develop this packaging don’t always consider the end of the package’s life, creating more of a challenge than anything for the professionals working at the recycling and compost centers. For more information on this CI, visit or reach out to VanDeventer directly at

Sonoco FRESH is a multi-disciplinary hub for innovation and research at Clemson University whose mission is to have a major impact on the safety, security and sustainability of food. Visit for more information, including Clemson student and faculty research.