Therese O’Connor

Therese O’Connor, Assistant Director and Training & Development, holding an AASHE cup (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education)

“…the idea that we waste a lot of food is a total myth. We’re not in the business of wasting food.”

In the last story, we heard from Chef Jacob of Hans Bethe House about the accommodations, adjustments, and sacrifices that Cornell Dining staff made during Ithaca’s March 2017 blizzard. The intention of sharing that story was to show appreciation for dining staff members; this story follows along the same lines, but will focus on Dining operations, ingredient sourcing, and food waste – parts of the infrastructure underlying Cornell Dining, if you will.

I spoke to Therese O’Connor, Assistant Director of Cornell Dining, who also oversees Training and Development:

“There are two types of collegiate dining operations. Outside sourcing and “self-operated”, which is what most Ivies practice (they want to remain autonomous). And did you know that when Cornell admitted women students, they were also responsible for cooking and doing laundry?

Our food purchasing process is in the hands of the Dining Purchasing Associate who works under the Purchasing Manager overseeing all purchasing for Campus Life. Before purchasing, each dining or operational unit’s receiver, chef, or manager approves that the menus have loaded properly onto the online system, a CBORD product. A team of chefs, nutritionists, and managers also look at the yearly menu (cycles are 3 weeks long) at all locations, retail and all you can eat (residential board) units prior to purchasing.”

To give you an idea about Cornell Dining’s purchases, Therese shared a few statistics:

  • Cornell Dining is a $54 million operation
  • $14 million is spent in purchasing food annually
  • This school year, there are 10,200 meal contracts
  • In one year, there are approximately 2.4 million transactions at residential board/all you can eat facilities, 3 million in retail
  • 70,000+ pounds of chicken are purchased each month
  • 30,000+ pounds of bananas are purchased each month
  • 11,000+ pounds of milk are purchased each month from Cornell dairy
  • 26% of purchases are local/regional

“It’s difficult to buy locally given our demand and location, however. Many of the local/regional purchases are from Cornell University Ag experimental farms. Tomatoes, squash, zucchinis, and carrots are from local NY or Northern PA farms. All apples until the end of March are sourced from NY – many from Cornell University’s Orchards, but the weather has been problematic for the past two years, so many are also from Western NY, where the climate is milder. The rest of the year, apples are sourced from Washington State.

The source of all chicken year round is based on the provider, but some chicken for special events are sourced from Northern PA. All fresh fish are from a “supposedly traceable” fish company in Boston. Cod products, specifically, are sustainably and MSC certified. They come from the North Atlantic. For the September Fall Harvest dinner, all salmon was sourced from Jail Island, a very remote aquaculture in Nova Scotia. 425 pounds were purchased for that one week, but it’s also a regular purchase for a menu item in Ivy Room.

We also try to get packaged snacks made regionally. For example, there is no more Frito-Lays, and instead, we get products made from Utz, which is a smaller, regional company. Smaller companies are also more willing to work with our demands; they’re not just giving us a set amount. We’re also supporting the regional economy.”

Clearly, a lot of money is spent on purchasing food for students, but what happens with food not eaten or wasted?

“It’s a business. Nobody wants to throw anything away. They want to economize. Every chef’s best interest is to reduce cost.

Any food that’s not repurpose-able is donated to Food Recovery Network (FRN). The five houses on West Campus work together because they are so physically proximate; If one house is low on one ingredient, another chef can send extra food over.” (See this story for more information about FRN).


And the question that I ask nearly everyone, is: what messages would you like the audience to know?

“There are two:

The first message is that it’s difficult to source all food locally. We get lots of uninformed accusations; people are quick to accuse.

The second message is the idea that we waste a lot of food is a total myth. We’re not in the business of wasting food. There’s some foods that are un-repurpose-able, for example, scrambled eggs – I’m not going to take old scrambled eggs, reheat it, and serve it to other people – that’s a food safety and quality issue.

But for the past few years, Cornell Dining has been tracking food waste data. We take a scale and weigh plates and food being returned to the conveyor belt. We’re known as the ‘Food Police’. The amount of food wasted ranges from zero to 18 ounces! This study aims to bring awareness to the individual consumer, because what you do influences the producer and supply chain.”

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