For the fifth time in three years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has honored USM's efforts to both reduce its food waste and wisely use the waste that remains.
In 2015, USM recovered 5.5 tons more food than it did the previous year. And before the semester ended, the 2016 numbers seemed poised to break last year's record total of 71.3 tons of recovered food, food that was then composted or sent to nearby farms as animal feed.
The university is in good company among honorees.
USM was the only Maine school to be recognized with this year's 2016 Food Recovery Challenge Achievement Certificate, and the only other Maine recipient was Hannaford Supermarkets. Honorees in the New England region included Northeastern University, Boston College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gillette Stadium and the Boston Red Sox.
"The award is important because it recognizes the effort and hard work of so many people," said Aaron Witham, the assistant director for sustainable programs within USM's Department of Facilities Management.
Such efforts help USM serve as a good neighbor within the communities of Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, Witham said. But the work is bigger than that.
"We do it to be a responsible, global citizen," he said. In fact, USM aims to be a carbon neutral university by 2040.
Much of the gains are made in little ways, from asking students to be mindful of how much food they put on their plates in the dining hall to collecting spent coffee grounds for use as fertilizer.
During the Spring 2016 semester, a 'Weigh the Waste" program in Gorham's Brooks Dining Hall helped students see how much food they were throwing away, said Steve Sweeney, resource recovery supervisor at USM. Sweeney hopes to bring the program back this spring. Meanwhile, additional initiatives are being planned. They will focus on athletics, events, the residence halls and offices.
"We've done a lot behind the scenes," Witham said. "It's time to be more visible."
The Food Recovery Challenge Achievement Award is only awarded to three colleges and universities in EPA Region 1: New England. The University of Southern Maine has won consecutive food recovery awards in each of the last three years. In 2014, USM was also honored with the EPA Partner of the Year Award and the Waste Wise Award.
Read about the full listing of EPA national and regional awards here.
The award was covered by the Associated Press. To view the story, click here.