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Colleges dig into sustainable dining

Energy efficient, low-waste and locally-sourced dining gets institutions closer to overall environmental goals
University Business, May 2015
  • Hyperlocal food service: UMass Amherst Chef Don Sabola selects cherry tomatoes with Joe Czajkowski, owner and operator of Czajkowski Farms, which is less than two miles from campus. The university is set to invest more than $3 million in locally grown food annually.
  • Prep work for study: Many students at Sterling College in Vermont work on sustainability initiatives in the school’s kitchen and on its farm. Sterling grows 20 percent of its own food.
  • Draft horses are just one step in Sterling College’s extensive and award-winning sustainable dining program.
  •  Educated farmers: Each academic year, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania holds dinners where all the food comes from its farm.
  • Dickinson’s farm is about 8 miles from campus.

A pair of draft horses often plows the campus farm at Sterling College. Sterling does have tractors—its agriculture students have to learn how to use all varieties of equipment—but the energy-saving horses are just one step in the Vermont school’s extensive and award-winning sustainable dining program.

The farm produces about 20 percent of the food consumed in the college’s dining hall.

It’s an institutional mission that drives enrollment. All of the school’s 150 students spend at least a week, often longer, working part time on the farm or in the kitchen, says President Matthew Derr. “Other colleges have theater programs and intercollegiate athletics—the kitchen is where our full energies play out,” Derr says.

Sterling was recently ranked No. 1 by the Real Food Challenge, an organization that’s trying to get colleges and universities to invest in sustainable food production. Sterling doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers and is building a facility to house dairy cows so it can produce its own milk.

But can a tiny college in rural Vermont be a model for larger liberal arts schools or sprawling public universities with enrollments in the tens of thousands? Sustainable dining is all about priorities—and maybe potatoes, Derr says. Because potatoes grow well in colder climates, they can be a reliable, local food source for large, northern institutions who could buy them from nearby farms.

“It’s possible for a college many, many times Sterling’s size to eat locally,” he says.

When searching for colleges, today’s students are asking about sustainability, says Jim Earle, the assistant vice chancellor for business at University of Pittsburgh.

“Students want to know an institution is progressive and working to create a more sustainable future,” he says. “And it does set us apart when we can talk about things like composting, trayless dining and local farmer programs.”

“Small plate, big flavor”

At an institution many times Sterling’s size, the dining halls at UMass, Amherst have menus based on the season and what food is available locally. That means during New England winters, students eat a lot of potatoes, onions, carrots and other root vegetables, says Christopher Howland, a purchasing director whose office oversees the dining program.

The program—one of the first in the nation to have its own sustainability office—also is trying to reduce its meat consumption and portion sizes. Some hamburgers are 30 percent mushrooms. With the right flavorings, students can’t tell the difference—plus mushroom allergies are rare, Howland says.

17 sustainable dining ingredients to consider

  1. Seasonal, local food (perhaps from a campus farm)
  2. Organic food
  3. A dining services sustainability office
  4. Reduced meat consumption and portion sizes
  5. A “cold room” where butchers can grind and cut meat
  6. Local and less commonly eaten seafood
  7. Vegetables frozen individually for less potential waste
  8. Student interns to help research local food vendors and suppliers
  9. Waste reduction efforts, including composting, frying oil reuse, waste-weighing campaigns and food-prep training for staff
  10. Food not taken by students can be donated to shelters, soup kitchens and similar programs
  11. Tracking (and redistribution across campus, if necessary) of perishable prepacked food items
  12. Controlled ventilation hoods that run only when stoves are operating
  13. Heat recovery systems in dining halls
  14. Trayless dining to reduce food taken and dishwashing water
  15. Non-disposable utensils
  16. Reusable bags for takeout meals
  17. Reusable or compostable cups in campus coffee shops

A“We have a small-plate, big-flavor mentality,” he adds.

Last year, the 22,000-student school won a gold award for sustainable procurement practices from the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS). The university works with a local broker to buy produce from regional farms.

There are also plans to use a process in which vegetables like broccoli and corn are frozen individually—at a facility about 20 minutes away—to be stored for the winter months. Freezing vegetables one by one means the school’s kitchens don’t have to thaw entire blocks of food, thus reducing the amount of potential waste.

Meat is harder to source locally than vegetables because the logistics of high-volume deliveries can be challenging for smaller farmers. UMass helped a local farmer who could provide beef and pork become a supplier for the campus’ primary food vendor. The school also helped the farm lower its liability insurance requirements, from $12 million to $6 million.

The university’s goal is to get more control over its food supply. To reduce costs, a “cold room” now being built will allow UMass to grind and butcher its own meats. As for seafood, the school has been experimenting with local, less common species like sole, redfish and dogfish. These fish are caught by Massachusetts fisherman but not as widely eaten as more popular species.

Even students not on a meal plan can eat more sustainably at Denison University in Ohio. The school’s “Buyer’s Club” provides an online form for students and staff to order beans, flour, gluten-free cookies and other groceries from farms and other local sources. The deliveries arrive every other week.

Another unique element at Denison is the locally sourced deli. While not offered every day, the meats and cheeses at dining hall deli stations are sometimes provided entirely by local food producers.

Denison students can also use their ID card to check out reusable containers to take to-go meals from the dining halls. At many other institutions, students have to pay an upfront fee to get these containers during the year and carry a keychain or token to check them out. At Denison, students are only charged if they don’t return the container.

At Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, which has been recognized by the Princeton Review as a leader in food sustainability, dining director Errol Huffman has a student intern each semester who constantly researches the sources of food served in the dining hall. “They serve as food detectives, discovering our food miles and looking at opportunities to find local vendors and suppliers,” Huffman says.

Once a semester, Dickinson serves a meal consisting entirely of food from its 50-acre farm, located about eight miles from campus. “Just like you can’t use generic dorm rooms anymore, you can’t have generic food service that’s not sustainable—you can’t serve chicken nuggets and mystery meat,” he says. “Students are demanding to know where everything comes from.”

Smarter ways to cut up cantaloupes

The kitchens at Washington University in St. Louis have been sending less food to homeless shelters and food banks in recent years. That’s because the school, which last year won a NACUFS gold medal for waste management, has aggressively cut down the waste produced by its dining program.

In fact, it diverted more than 305,000 pounds of waste from landfills last year, says Paul Schimmele, dining manager for the university’s main campus.

“Dining has such a huge impact on the environment,” Schimmele says. “The amount that used to be thrown into landfills is, by today’s standards, unconscionable.”

All of the frying oil is stored in tanks, shipped off-site, and turned into about 4,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel that powers three food service delivery trucks. On a larger scale, the dining program doesn’t keep a lot of extra food on hand and kitchen staff have been trained to prepare foods in ways that produce less waste.

“Basically, there are more efficient ways to cut up a cantaloupe,” Schimmele says.

Uneaten food is scraped off plates and into grinding machines called “pulpers” that extract water so the leftovers can be sent to farms to use as compost. The university also uses the compost to help beautify the campus.

“A lot of compost leaves campus as food waste and comes back as mulch for the flower garden,” Schimmele says.

Prepacked food, such as sandwiches and salads sold at various locations around campus, is tracked carefully so not much of it has to be thrown out. If it’s not sold in one location after a few hours, dining staff moves it to one of the campus convenience stores, where it is more likely to be purchased. Very few of the 4,000 to 5,000 prepacked meals go unconsumed, Schimmele says.

Diners can choose from a variety of eco-friendly cups at California State University, Northridge.

In March, the 37,000-student university started offering a reusable “green” cup in its five Freudian Sip Cafes. Students pay $2 for a cup, and then get a 30-cent discount each time they use it. When they no longer want the cup, it can be sent back to the manufacturer for recycling.

Another option for coffee and other hot drinks is a compostable cup made entirely from recycled material. The cup is lined with plant resin, rather than petroleum, and is also doubled-walled so an extra sleeve isn’t necessary to make it comfortable to hold.

Finally, the university stocks its soda fountains with compostable cups made by drink vendor Pepsi.

“Uncomfortable dinner parties”

The 50,000-student University of Minnesota’s current push is to increase the 41 percent of waste that it diverts from incineration—and that will be done by intensifying its already extensive composting efforts in its kitchens and further raising awareness among staff and students, says Stennes.

For instance, “weigh the waste” campaigns in the dining halls show students how much food they are leaving on their plates. This is meant to encourage students and other diners to take only what they can eat. University Dining Services also holds occasional “Uncomfortable Dinner Parties” in which a few dozen students, faculty, staff and community members have come together to discuss sustainable dining practices, such as buying local food.

One result of these dinners is that a student group called “U Students Like Good Food” has been researching whether the university would benefit from joining the Real Food Challenge, says Shane Stennes, the university’s sustainability coordinator.

“Food can have a lot of impact on sustainability up and down the supply chain,” says Stennes. “The immediate impact may not be as big as greenhouse gas emissions, but food is a personal way people can get involved in sustainability, while some other aspects of campus operations are more far-removed.”

Much energy can be saved in a kitchen. Sarah Hammond Creighton, director of sustainability of Endicott College on the Massachusetts coast, says controls installed during a recent dining hall renovation only allow ventilation hoods to run only when ovens are operating.

“In many dining facilities, they come in in the morning and just turn on the hoods, or the hoods just run all the time,” she says. “That sucks huge amounts of conditioned air out of the build and wastes it.”

The building that houses the dining hall also has a heat recovery system. In the winter, for instance, warm, 70-degree air that is ventilated out of the building is recycled back into the system. This reduces the burden on boilers, which now heat air that’s 50 degrees, rather than 20.

BYO bag

At many colleges and universities, students drive a range of sustainability efforts—like the campaign to reduce plastic bag usage at University of Pittsburgh’s retail dining facilities. The BYO-Bag campaign began last spring, when students working on the project estimated about 15,000 plastic bags were being used on campus each year.

Initially, all students received a reusable shopping bag with the university logo for the campaign, funded by Housing and Food Services. Then, a new campus quota limited each student to 15 plastic bags a semester, with usage recorded at the cash register and anyone reaching the limit being charged 25 cents for each subsequent bag.

The number of plastic bags used dropped by 70 percent, says Earle, the assistant vice chancellor for business.

Pitt also hired a part-time student dining sustainability coordinator, who evaluates and suggests sustainability initiatives. Trayless dining was one result. Initiatives like going trayless save money because it reduces the amount of food students take and the water used for dishwashing.

Buying local or organic food, on the other hand, can be more expensive, Earle says.

“Sometimes, we can protect the environment and save money,” he says, adding that there’s a commitment to sustainability even when it costs more. “We think it’s the right thing to do.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

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