Taming the Bounty: Information Technology Helps Feed More with Less

By Kevin Hodur

Little on a college campus is free. Most agree that higher education is a valuable and worthwhile investment in a student’s future, an essential step on the professional ladder.

But it is an expensive proposition to maintain a college campus equipped to nurture all the elements of a student’s life. And with state budgets growing ever tighter, universities have had to learn to do more with less.

Snow and ice blanket Michigan Technological University and the Copper Country in the winter — at no charge — but that’s on Mother Nature’s audit report, not on Michigan Tech’s. Blanketing the campus with food costs actual dollars.

While Facilities Management at Michigan Tech works to clear winter away, the University’s Dining Services has adopted a lean approach: applying information technology to reduce waste and provide high quality food service at rock bottom cost.

Back in 2011, Kathy Wardynski, manager of purchasing and process improvement in Michigan Tech’s Dining Services, took a good, hard look at her numbers. “We were throwing away too much,” she said. Harnessing some bits, bytes, and vision, she helped launch LeanPath — an automated system first developed in 2004 by a Portland, Ore.-based team — and put Michigan Tech in a position to save nearly $1,000 in food service costs per week.

Dining Services at Tech is one of more than 150 food service organizations that has implemented the LeanPath system. It’s helped food services staff order only what they need, prioritize and prepare food based on anticipated demand, and prevent waste by better estimating and understanding portions and use.

Now, three years on, LeanPath has proved its worth over all of Dining Services’ operations. And with three residence hall cafeterias (with an additional cafe open late in one residence hall), a full cafeteria in the Memorial Union Building, a cafe in the library, snack and coffee shops in two academic buildings, and a new cafe at the Student Development Center (Tech’s athletics complex), there is a lot of food service going on across campus. That means myriad opportunities for finding and eliminating waste in food preparation.

“The whole program is about weighing food waste and calculating the cost of the waste, then posting the costs and conducting stop-waste brainstorming meetings on a daily basis,” explains Robert Hiltunen, director of auxiliary services at Michigan Tech. “When employees closest to the work see the actual numbers behind what is being wasted, it opens their eyes. They become waste-watching experts, and their ideas to eliminate the waste are growing exponentially.”

It hasn’t just been a process of cost-cutting. While LeanPath cites financial sustainability as its original goal, both LeanPath and Michigan Tech have fully embraced the complementary goals of ecological sustainability and intelligently managing resources.

Streamlining operations has not meant shrinking menu options. Rather, Dining Services has expanded its variety of food offerings. For example, the staff works with international students to produce Khana Khazana, a weekly offering of cuisine from around the world, prepared and served by international students from those regions. An organic garden in a residence hall courtyard, tended by students, provides fresh-from-Mother-Earth vegetables and salads for the students’ health and enjoyment in the residence hall dining rooms. In the Dow Sciences and Engineering Building, smoothies, sandwiches, and coffee have replaced vending machine fare, increasing variety for students, faculty, and staff, but also complicating the supply chain and process management for Dining Services. Yet, even with all these changes, Dining Services has managed to increase overall efficiency and savings.

Establishing new dining options while continuing to improve has been the key challenge for LeanPath: each new combination of offerings, location, and customers adds a new set of variables for LeanPath to process. The key is that the rollout of new offerings is informed by previous experience within the system, and improvements learned in one area are then easily applied to other venues. For example, better understanding the times each venue is busiest allows procurement to better predict what will be consumed. The Library Cafe has added some light meal options to reflect it being busiest from mid-morning to early afternoon. Having a selection of lunch choices has increased sales while still improving overall efficiency.

It isn’t just a matter of streamlining food procurement and processing, either. By focusing on recycling, reusing, and integrating biodegradable materials, dining services has made efficiency more than just an economic imperative. Disposable utensils and food containers are kept to a minimum, and a proactive food recycling program ensures that anything prepared that is not consumed is still handled in the least wasteful manner.

Perhaps it’s just a start, but Wardynski sees the momentum small initiatives can generate. “Lots of little things really add up,” she said. And eliminating waste improves efficiency, keeping costs down for everyone and really doing more with less.


Kevin Hodur holds a doctorate in rhetoric and technical communication from Michigan Tech, as well as a Master’s in English and a bachelor’s in communication. He teaches the occasional class in the humanities department and works for the university as a writer and editor.

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