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Greening Your Dining Services

Tips on how higher ed institutions can keep costs low
University Business, Jun 2010

Greening doesn't have to be costly. Working with students and associates who have an interest in sustainability and greening can generate many, many ideas. Any initiative that supports learning or diverts normal waste to innovative channels is a green initiative. Something as simple as creating a collection point for discarded electronics to be sent to a credible recycling location counts. The following are tips from schools managed by Parkhurst Dining on how to keep the green cost low.

For a small investment, an unused structure located on the campus of Saint Francis University (Pa.) became the new greenhouse garden where vegetables and herbs are grown and harvested to help prepare a variety of menu items for special events with up to 75 guests.

Parkhurst Dining Executive Sous Chef Mike Passanita worked with the Saint Francis physical plant team to reconstruct the planting beds in the greenhouse. According to Passanita, $500 was used to rebuild the wooden grow boxes in the greenhouse. An additional $200 was spent on five bales of professional grade soil-less mix (purchased from a local purveyor) required to fill all the planting boxes, and a new irrigation system which features a self-watering timer, soaker hose, split valve, and pressure regulator.

Grown at the hand of Passanita, the garden consists of Little Gem romaine lettuce; flat leave parsley; curly parsley; thyme; sweet basil; stevia; winter thyme; cilantro; rosemary; and sweet and spicy mesculin mix. "I have grown lettuces for specialty dinners and the savings is a lot if you compare that we buy a spring mix for $3.13 a pound and I can grow it for 21 cents a pound," says Passanita. "I planted two packs of mesculin mix at $1.55 a pack and produced 15 pounds of lettuce."

The most significant savings for Passanita is growing his own herbs. "For example, a pack of basil seeds cost me $1.55," he notes. "Using only half the pack, I now have 40 plants of basil. I am estimating I can get at least three to four pounds off of these plants once they are matured, and continue to cut from them throughout the fall. I plan on moving these plants back into the green house to winter them over."

In addition to the greenhouse, Passanita grows a variety of herbs right outside his dining facility: lemon, chives, borage, edible flowers (cosmos), peppermint, spearmint, dill, and rosemary. "Most of these herbs come back every year and we use them all summer long. Now that I have well-established plants, I plan on moving these herbs into the greenhouse and using them throughout the winter too."

Fully utilizing the trimmings from vegetables in an institutional-size kitchen can fuel both cost savings and a green ideology. Even if a dining service cannot use those trimmings to create fresh stocks for soups and sauces, as some do, they can be used as alternative mulch or in composting opportunities. Along with the collection of eggshells, coffee grounds, and other food production byproducts, vegetable trimmings are excellent for that use.

According to Justin Lemnios, Parkhurst Dining general manager of dining at the Maryland Institute College of Art (Md.), the dining team will separate food waste from the kitchen and the dish return area, which is disposed into specially marked collection containers. Approximately two tons (4,160 pounds) of waste per month is collected. Future plans are to return the composted material back to campus as a natural ground cover for flowerbeds, trees, and other landscaped areas, with a sign that states, "This is your food waste."

At Chatham University (Pa.), trayless dining "is always a win because the students take and waste less food, says Leslie Ekstrand, Parkhurst Dining general manager of dining services. "There is less labor, green cleaning materials and water usage in washing the trays. The good news is that our green cleaning materials cost did not increase. We have also decreased two to three labor hours per day off the dish room schedule."

Prior to going trayless, Chatham used to use three garbage cans for composting in the dining hall that had to be emptied twice per meal. The dining team now only requires one can that is emptied at the end of each meal. Chatham composts 12,000 pounds of both pre- and post-consumer each week, and is composting more of its cardboard instead of recycling it to continue to fill the dumpster.

Bucknell University (Pa.) has made several cost effective eco-friendly changes in its food service operations, including the switch to biodegradable corn-based cup and lid products, and investing in reusable to-go containers. Students will purchase the containers for $5 and receive a card with their container purchase that allows them to return the used container to dining services in exchange for a clean and sanitized one. "Since Bucknell students cover the cost of the containers, they are helping to save the environment by recycling these containers, instead of sending them to landfills," says John Cummins, Parkhurst Dining general manager of resident dining.

A reusable mug program is also popular among Bucknell students. In their retail venues, food service sells discount coffee stickers for $1 that students adhere to their personal 16-ounce container, which entitles them to 25 cents off a cup of coffee. Use your own mug saves dining services the purchase of additional paper cups.

For more information about greening your dining service, visit

Grace Zarnas-Hoyer is president of Hoyer & Associates Inc., Public Relations and Communications. She has provided editorial and public relations services to the onsite food service management industry for 15 years.

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