Illinois Reduces Food Waste With Homemade Tomato Sauce

The perfect tomato is one of the joys of summer. It’s perfectly round, with smooth bright red skin, and inside it is juicy and full of robust flavor. The Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign grows hundreds of these beauties every season.

But the farm also grows thousands more tomatoes that — while still delicious — have imperfections like bug bites, uneven color, odd shape, or scarring. What is the fate of these “ugly” tomatoes? As of summer 2015, they’re being turned into Illinois “house-made” tomato sauce.

A partnership between the farm, the Department of Crop Science, the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition’s Pilot Plant, Dining Services, and the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) is making sure that every tomato grown on campus lives up to its potential as the signature taste of summer.

The house-made tomato sauce processing project is all about greater sustainability: using the Farm’s entire large annual tomato crop.

The Student Sustainable Farm grows thousands of pounds of fresh produce every growing season. The bulk of it is sold to University Housing’s Dining Services, and a smaller amount is sold at the Farm’s weekly stand on the Illinois Main Quad. The trouble is that peak harvest for tomatoes occurs in summer, when the large majority of students are away from campus and Dining’s grocery demand is lower. Despite Dining Services’ best efforts to use as many tomatoes as possible — even hiring extra hourly kitchen hands to dice tomatoes to make salsa and pico de gallo to freeze for the upcoming semester — it just couldn’t take on the roughly 9,000 pounds grown in 2014, said Carrie Anderson, Executive Chef for Residential Dining.

With Dining’s needs filled and no one interested in buying blemished tomatoes, a big portion of the Farm’s output was going to waste each year, said Farm Manager Matthew Turino. That represented a big investment in time, money, and resources just thrown into the garbage can. Not very sustainable.

The solution seemed clear: Make sure all tomatoes get used. Sauce seemed an easy solution because it can use blemished produce, requires relatively little processing, and can be made shelf-stable for use beyond the tomato-boom season.

With a two-part grant of $564,500 from SSC in 2013-14, the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition’s Pilot Plant — a small-scale professional-grade food processing research facility — purchased several pieces of equipment to process the tomatoes into sauce. It delivered its first product to Dining Services in June 2015.

Watch one of the first batches of sauce being made:

Besides using tomatoes that would otherwise go to waste, the Plant has taken several extra steps to make the tomato sauce operation as sustainable as possible, said Brian Jacobson, Systems Analyst at the Pilot Plant. Workers there collect and recycle the water used to rinse tomatoes, and are experimenting with boiling the tomato juice under vacuum conditions to reduce the energy input needed to get the sauce to proper thickness. Recyclable plastic pouches are used to package the sauce. These pouches were selected not only for their recyclable nature, but also because the rolls of plastic film take up less space on a truck, allowing the handlers to fit more into one shipment, reducing carbon emissions.

According to Anderson, the finished product is simply “amazing.”

“The flavor is bright, and it just tastes like tomato, you know? You don’t taste sugar or salt, and it doesn’t taste like ketchup. It’s a wonderful experience when you taste something and it tastes the way it’s supposed to taste,” she said.

Anderson has found ways to work the fresh tomato sauce into to many of the dining halls’ staple dishes, like pizza sauce and garden vegetable pasta sauce — as well as into new recipes like a tomato-based gazpacho soup.

The house-made tomato sauce was served throughout September in three Dining Halls: Ikenberry, Pennsylvania Avenue (PAR), and Illinois Street (ISR). In the future, the Farm may step up its tomato production so the supply will last longer.

“(Working with the Farm and the Pilot Lab) definitely creates a greater sense of community,” Anderson said. “ When it goes outside your walls into their space and sharing knowledge and ideas and creating things the students will consume, you feel as if you have greater purpose than just feeding people. You are supporting local food, you are involving your colleagues, you are giving the students and customers what they want — and doing it in a responsible way.”

— Olivia Harris, Communications Assistant