Weighing food-weighing machines at dining halls

Students walking into Lakeside or Wilbur dining fall quarter were faced with an unfamiliar sight. High-tech weighing machines were introduced as food waste receptacles in select dining halls in the fall, garnering confusion from some students. 

Samina Lutfeali, a 5th-year Ph.D. student in business administration, proposed the project, which is in collaboration with the Stanford Food Institute (SFI) and Stanford Dining, Hospitality & Auxiliaries (SDHA) units of Residential and Dining Enterprises (RD&E). The year-long project aims to devise new strategies to reduce student food waste, according to an article from Sustainable Stanford. 

Lutfeali’s advisor Szu-chi Huang connected her with Winnow, a company which makes commercial food waste systems utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) to identify patterns in waste.

According to Lutfeali, the need for the machines comes from the inefficiency of tracking food waste manually. “The manual methods are generally time-consuming and can only capture a limited amount of information” Lutfeali wrote in a statement to the Daily.

Lutfeali is hopeful that the addition of the weighing machines will result in more comprehensive data on dining hall food waste and hopes more data will help answer key questions. 

“Are there times in the day or quarter that are associated with more waste? Certain menus? Ways of serving food? Getting better, more consistent data through the machines helps us get at that step,” Lutfeali wrote. 

According to the Winnow website, their machines are able to use AI to track what specific food items are being thrown away, allowing kitchens to reduce waste by producing less of that item. Lutfeali did not comment on whether this capability is being implemented for this project.

In addition to gathering data, the project aims to change student behavior. Jocelyn Breeland, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for R&DE, wrote that the year-long study will examine strategies for reducing student food waste, specifically with a “motivation science framework”. Breeland emphasized the goal of fostering sustainable habits in students they will carry beyond Stanford. 

There was no communication about the purpose of the machines to students eating at dining halls. Some students perceived the project as a method of public shaming. 

Amanda Campos ’26 said, “I see the machines as trying to put the blame on the consumer.” 

Campos described feeling as though the machines emphasized each contribution of waste, a  message she described as , “look at all this, you shouldn’t contribute to this pile.”

Campos criticized the machines for focusing on individual actions instead of institutional changes, “What’s the point of shaming a single student who’s just going about [their] day?” she asked.

According to Campos, more effective institutional changes could include offering sampling spoons for food so students don’t waste food they don’t like, or reducing plate sizes so they’ll tend to get less food to start with. 

R&DE implemented smaller plate sizes before rolling them back in the fall. The smaller plates faced criticism from students for not carrying enough food for the average student. In a Daily article from the community, students expressed concern smaller plates could promote disordered eating. 

Campos raised concerns that the weighing machines, too, could promote disordered eating. 

According to the NIH, eating disorders can manifest as excessive and/or restrictive eating, with many complex combinations of the two. A fixation on never wasting food to the point of overeating can be considered disordered eating. 

Campos said that, as someone who has struggled with anorexia and is a picky eater, she tries to finish her food, but sometimes, she said, “I cannot finish it.” 

According to Breeland, R&DE is “prioritizing the upstream strategies that can prevent food waste from occurring in the first place by forecasting and ordering accurately, portion control and just-in-time cooking.”

How the introduction of the weighing machines may have changed diners’ behavior is still unclear. According to Lutfeali, “we don’t know about the extent of changes yet, and we will keep on tracking and studying it.”

When asked about the concern that weighing machines may be detrimental for students struggling with or having a history of eating disorders, Lutfeali emphasized that SDHA is “deeply committed to promoting healthy eating habits” and collaborates with Vaden Health Center. 

Lutfeali wrote that “efforts include proactive strategies to help those who face challenges with disordered eating. SDHA has implemented this waste tracking measure that is not directly linked to disordered eating but does successfully contribute to reducing the university’s carbon footprint.”