Fresh, local food is the hot entree in campus dining. Behind the scenes, reducing and composting food waste completes a more eco-friendly cycle.
By Karla Hignite
Fair-trade, songbird-friendly, cage-free, and free-range have been in the vocabulary of college and university dining services for years, as students have pushed for menu selections that increase organic fare, preserve ecosystems, and promote just labor practices. A more recent focus on what's fresh and local has been spurred in part by close scrutiny of production and distribution practices in the United States, in which the average meal often travels at least 1,500 miles from farm to plate. In addition to lowering carbon emissions associated with transport, benefits cited by proponents of consuming locally sourced foods include better taste and nutrition, greater control over food safety, and support of regional economies and livelihoods.
And yet, eating close to home isn't that easy. Spending 30 percent of total dining dollars on local food purchases is a significant achievement for many institutions. Partly to blame are the rise of large-scale commercial farming practices in previous decades that put a premium on high-yield, mostly monoculture crops, and the government subsidy programs that have promoted these trends. In the process, many midscale farms have been squeezed out of the food system network, ensuring reliance on long-distance distribution channels for even basic foodstuffs.
But, a new food consciousness is emerging on the horizon—an understanding that choices to boost intake of local and seasonal products can have far-reaching impacts for revitalizing family farms and remaking the nation's food map to bring production and supply chains back in balance with more regional, sustainable practices. Because colleges and universities require substantial, diverse, and steady food supplies on a daily basis to keep students nourished, they offer trustworthy partnerships for farmers and distributors and can therefore play a critical role in these endeavors.
Concerned students, faculty, and staff are likewise grappling with how to address the other end of the food spectrum—reducing and repurposing food waste. Many campuses already convert used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel for campus vehicles. On-site composting to fertilize student-run gardens is quickly gaining popularity as a logical and responsible way to complete the loop from farm to table to farm. Adding to successes in reducing energy and water use in their facilities, dining services staff are stepping up efforts to cut pre- and postconsumer waste. That translates into savings on overall food purchases and associated labor costs for preparation and cleanup.
Who knew sitting down to dinner could raise so many complicated questions about where food comes from and what happens to the leftovers? Core to the stories of the institutions highlighted in this article is a sense of mission to integrate facts and theories from the classroom with real-food applications in the dining hall.
Most Americans are likely hard pressed to state where their dairy products and eggs originate or how the vegetables, grains, and meats they purchase have been raised or harvested. However, concerns about dietary health, economic and environmental impacts of farming practices and policies, and food safety and security offer plenty of reasons to study agricultural systems. Institutions across the United States are introducing cross-disciplinary approaches to enhance food literacy and reconnect to the land and traditions of surrounding communities.
Decline in percentage of calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A and C found in certain foods since the 1970s.
One example is a new ecogastronomy program at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Durham. The dual-major curriculum links the fields of sustainable agriculture, hospitality, and nutrition, and requires a semester of study abroad at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Similarly, Montana State University in Bozeman recently launched a bachelor of science degree in sustainable food and bioenergy systems. The program is jointly sponsored by three departments and will prepare graduates for careers in food safety, agricultural biosecurity, bioenergy production, and combating rural economic decline, poverty, and obesity.
In coursework at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, students explore food production and food cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and modern Spain, and contemporary France, and assess the impacts of diet and nutrition on heart disease, obesity, and other noncommunicable diseases in the United States and around the globe. Plans are under way to introduce a capstone course this fall that will focus on local food issues and food access in the Lewiston community, says Camille Parrish, learning associate and lecturer in environmental studies.
In fact, the entire Bates community spent the 2008-09 academic year examining the social and economic implications of food systems, prompted in part by an anonymous gift of $2.5 million from an alumnus to fund the increase of local, organic, and natural foods served on campus. In recent years Christine Schwartz, director of dining services for Bates, spent about 22 percent of her annual food budget in these categories. The gift allowed her to increase that allocation to 28 percent during the past fiscal year-an amount she hopes to boost to 32 percent within the next five years.
According to Bates College President Elaine Hansen, the yearlong contemplation of where food comes from, who grows it, and how it connects to the institution's mission well beyond the dining hall provided an opportunity to confront issues ranging from petroleum dependence and diet-related diseases to threats like species extinction and global hunger. "This is part of what a liberal arts education is about," says Hansen. "We want students to consider issues that are very complex, so they begin to understand that acting responsibly in the world is never a simple matter."
Incoming freshmen at University of Wisconsin-Madison will likewise get a concentrated look at food systems this fall as part of a residential learning community initiative organized by the university's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The institution already has hands-on student participation in campus food projects. Last year the university's F.H. King Students of Sustainable Agriculture organization turned its 30,000-square-foot garden into a business enterprise, launching a community-supported agriculture farm that includes more than 60 types of fruits and vegetables. In addition to supplying its paying members, the student-run farm provides produce to campus dining outlets and donates some of its harvest to local food pantries.
Michelle Miller, who helped found the student group as an undergraduate nearly 30 years ago, is now associate director of UW-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), the sustainable agriculture research and outreach center on campus. Part of her food systems work includes assisting campus dining services with forging local farmer connections. The university currently buys farmer-direct and organic foods for carryout venues and campus convenience stores as well as for residential dining centers. Approximately 17 percent of campus housing's food budget is spent with local vendors and producers, primarily for dairy and bakery items. Among ideas under consideration for further boosting local food intake are developing operations for freezing and canning local foods when in season and launching a privately run cafe featuring local and organic foods.
A number of institutions are already introducing destination cafes that feature local flavors. In Tempe, Arizona State University's Engrained cafe cooks local food to order. Slated to open in August, the new Seasons Marketplace at Iowa State University (ISU), Ames, will showcase Iowa-grown and seasonal food items. Other institutions celebrate with special meals to bring attention to food sources in their backyards, often inviting area farmers to meet with students and faculty and talk about their operations. This past year, by popular demand, UNH expanded its annual harvest dinner into a daylong Local Harvest Feast, offering students and the general public opportunities to sample all-local cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Real Foodies and Locavores
The push to rediscover the joy of local foods and farm cultures has been driven in part by concerns about nutrition and the desire for better taste. A number of independent studies and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest that the nutritional value of many common foods, from tomatoes to collard greens, has declined in recent decades. Some studies indicate that the amount of calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A and C found in certain foods has fallen approximately 20 to 35 percent since the 1970s.
One explanation for this drop in nutritional quality is that early-to-harvest crops—picked before peak maturity to factor in transportation—don't have adequate time to absorb key minerals. Conversely, mature crops yield higher concentrations of vital nutrients, giving credence to those who argue that local is not only better tasting, but also better for you.
Organized efforts to emphasize local and organic food traditions are making these options more feasible. The international slow food movement that emerged in the 1980s to combat the agricultural policies, practices, and market forces supporting the fast food industry now has members in at least 130 countries. Students from more than 300 U.S. colleges and universities have joined the Real Food Challenge campaign, pledging to work with their campus dining services to purchase at least 20 percent "real food"—local and organic or employing humane animal treatment and fair trade practices—by 2020.
Campus food service companies are likewise leading efforts to boost locally sourced products. Bon Appétit Management Company's Eat Local Challenge, launched in 2005, sets aside one day each year in which all chefs feature a meal made entirely of ingredients from within 150 miles of the kitchens where it is prepared. On a daily basis, Bon Appétit's companywide Farm to Fork program commits each venue to 20 percent of total food purchases from local farmers on an annual basis. For cold-weather locations, that may mean buying higher percentages of local foods during the growing season to offset the lack of seasonally available produce in the winter.
Yet, options exist year-round even in locations with short growing seasons, says Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appétit vice president. "From pork and farm-raised seafood to wild rice, cheese, and honey, many local products can be found in colder climates if you take the time to find them," adds Greenawalt.
She concedes that a commitment to local food does require greater ingenuity from all involved. Chefs must be creative with building menus around what is in season. Dining services staff and food service companies must be willing to research opportunities and experiment with approaches for enhancing local options, whether developing partnerships with microprocessors to can or freeze local foods for year-round use, or working with farmers to incorporate greenhouses to extend growing seasons.
All this raises questions about what constitutes local and what are realistic and appropriate goals for increasing local food consumption.
Growing the Family Farm
Bates College defines local as what's grown in the state of Maine. Schwartz works directly with 32 area farms and one primary vendor, which provides supply flexibility for products she can't get nearby. "Our decision to manage our own dining procurement rather than contracting with outside management services is part of why we believe we've been able to steadily increase our local purchasing, even before the [donor] gift," says Schwartz.
The food system is responsible for one third of global greenhouse emissions.
UNH defines local as within 250 miles, although it places a strong emphasis on buying within its state's boundaries. Rick MacDonald, assistant director of university hospitality services, spends 16 percent of UNH dining dollars on local products. That's double what he spent five years ago, and he hopes to increase that allocation to 20 percent before the end of 2010.
At ISU, local is technically what's produced within 200 miles of the university's campus, but anything Iowa-grown is a source of local pride. In 2007, the university launched its Farm to ISU program with the dual goal of introducing more fresh and seasonal food items to ISU dining customers and providing a more stable market to support small- and midscale farmers and processors throughout the state. The program's five-year plan aims to expand ISU's dining purchases of local, sustainable, and organic foods served in the university's dining halls, cafes, and convenience stores to 35 percent by 2012.
A huge part of successfully achieving that goal hinges on developing a supportive infrastructure, says Sue DeBlieck, Farm to ISU coordinator. Her position is funded by ISU's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a research and education center with statewide programs to develop sustainable agricultural practices that are profitable and also conserve natural resources. Although a large market for local producers exists in Iowa, among the primary challenges have been developing lasting partnerships with fruit and vegetable growers and encouraging local farmers to expand operations, says DeBlieck. "Forging strong relationships includes understanding the issues local producers face when attempting to sell products to us, and working to establish a market that encourages farmers to trust the process enough to participate."
Food transported by air approximately 10 times less efficient form an emissions standpoint than that sent by ship.
While upwards of 30,000 meals served daily arguably should be enough to instill confidence in providers with regard to steady demand for food provisions, ISU dining has learned that trust is more easily obtained with a business guarantee. Nancy Levandowski, ISU's dining services director, awarded contracts to local farmers for the first time this year for cucumbers, cabbage, and green peppers.
"We calculated how much we need and bid out half that amount, letting the farmers know that if they have more product, they could add this in. Letting them know how much we require on a weekly basis provided assurance that if they grow their business, we can support them," says Levandowski. "We also had to consider the up-front planning and preparation they need to meet our supply requirements." For instance, awarding contracts last November allowed their partners to buy enough seed for what ISU will purchase from them later this summer, says Levandowski.
UNH is similarly positioned to dramatically spur local and regional agricultural economies. "We represent the largest food service operation in the state," says MacDonald. Tom Kelly, UNH chief sustainability officer, points out that, unlike the nation's breadbasket states, the agricultural composition of New Hampshire reflects predominantly small-scale farms. "For us to increase our intake of local food products puts a big influx of capital into the market that can stimulate expansion of existing farms and encourage new farmers as agricultural entrepreneurs," says Kelly. He currently serves as a guest on the board of directors for the National Association of College & University Food Services. How to incorporate sustainable food service practices and strengthen local supplier partnerships are hot topics these days for NACUFS member institutions, says Kelly.
UNH is also part of a pilot group of higher education institutions testing the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, which includes a section on campus dining. "The tool pushed us to analyze our current distribution channels," says MacDonald. "Part of our challenge with increasing our local food purchases is that we have to wait for our supply chain to catch up."
MacDonald is in the process of rebidding the university's prime vendor contract. "We're including language that asks how vendors can help us with local food access," says MacDonald. "We can't efficiently take deliveries from 40 local farms for our various food needs, so we really need some help from distributors." In fact, the solution requires cultivating a shared sense of risk and long-term investment, notes Kelly. "If we are going to truly revitalize our regional agricultural economies and create a vibrant local food system, then everyone has to get involved—campus dining services, distributors, and farmers."
Redrawing Supply Chains
Since its inception in 1989, University of Wisconsin-Madison's CIAS focused primarily on helping Wisconsin farmers with sustainable approaches to food production, though not with a concerted aim of connecting small-scale producers to larger markets. The center now has a grant to work on local food system development for the state and is exploring a six-state effort to link supply chains within the Great Lakes region. Says UW-Madison's Miller, "we used to have a strong fruit and vegetable economy in this area, but now fresh produce comes mostly from the West Coast." Miller is currently working with a network of 47 apple growers around the state and an area packing house to develop a regional, certified eco-brand that would once again make local, sustainably grown apples widely available.
"Wherever you lack midscale operations, a big piece of the supply chain usually is also missing," says Miller. She believes that the concentration of commodity production in the United States—for instance, fruits and vegetables in the West and South, dairy in the North, and poultry in the East—while strategically logical, has led to some illogical distribution patterns. "Does it really make sense to send Wisconsin onions to Georgia and then turn around and ship Oregon onions to Wisconsin?" asks Miller. "Part of our aim is to see where opportunities lie to change the playing field and rebalance the system."
Higher education food service companies are doing their part to remake the nation's food map. Over the past several years, Sodexo has reassessed U.S. agricultural productivity and reorganized its distribution system. While the company has always sourced based on a regional system, the process in place today is much more transparent to better track supply channels for customers, says Arlin Wasserman, Sodexo's vice president for corporate citizenship. The new system also sources from many more providers—about 700 farms from across the country, with more being added all the time, he notes. "We found distributors in every place we do business and built into our contracts mandatory commitments to work with farmers in the distributors' state or region." The company's current network of about 80 distributors operates under this framework, says Wasserman.
ARAMARK has likewise modified its supply chain to enhance local purchasing capability. In some instances, the company brings together local farmers and distributors to openly discuss needs and concerns. While ARAMARK is always looking for midsize providers that can better support its larger university customers, a solid network of small-scale suppliers can accomplish the same goal of bringing more local and seasonal foods to campus tables, notes Christopher Stemen, senior director of sustainability and environmental stewardship, ARAMARK Higher Education.
"We know that our success is dependent on the success of small-scale farmers, so we have to do all we can to ensure their business viability," says Bon Appétit's Greenawalt. That includes working with growers to address food safety requirements while also taking into consideration what they are doing in terms of quality assurance. "If a farmer is certified organic by USDA, they already have an incredible paper trail in terms of inspections," says Greenawalt. "We don't need to add to that burden with our own set of procedural standards."
While local foods may be fresher, tastier, and more nutritious, they aren't necessarily the lowest-carbon option. Food miles—a measure of the distance a particular product travels from where it is raised to where it is consumed—is only one factor in calculating food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Others include mode of transport (truck, rail, ship, or plane) and type of fuel, fertilizer and water use, harvesting techniques, and types of packaging and storage procedures. Some basic principles apply. For instance, food transported by air is approximately 10 times less efficient from an emissions standpoint than what is sent by ship, notes Greenawalt.
Two years ago, Bon Appétit began a low-carbon diet initiative to discover ways to reduce the company's carbon impact. A little-known statistic staff discovered when they began researching the science of climate change is that the world's food system is responsible for approximately one third of greenhouse gas emissions, says Greenawalt. "In other words, the average American diet has a greater impact on climate change than the cars most Americans drive."
Among the changes the company is making as part of its low-carbon diet commitment are to reduce overall beef purchases by 25 percent, eliminate all air-freighted species of seafood, and curtail purchases of tropical fruit by 50 percent. "To eliminate bananas altogether would be seen as a takeaway, but we estimated that we could cut our consumption by half, and we were right," says Greenawalt. The successful transition has required improving education in cafes regarding the environmental impacts of certain "staple" foods, and offering great-tasting, local alternatives.
In another carbon-counting initiative, ARAMARK is partnering with Clean Air-Cool Planet to determine the carbon equivalents of 100 common food items by identifying typical sourcing methods and the number of average miles transported. The effort will result in a calculator tool that more accurately and transparently assesses the carbon footprint of core products.
Sodexo is working closely with 14 partner institutions to assess the environmental impacts of their specific food purchasing practices and supply chains. Internally, the company is analyzing energy and carbon impacts associated with food storage, notes Wasserman. For instance, is less energy required to buy local produce in season and then freeze and store it for later use, or to ship in fresh produce for portions of the year for locations that have shorter growing seasons?
Perhaps the most dramatic way to curb greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce food waste, says Greenawalt. This is important for two reasons. "Discarded food wastes all the energy and resources that went into producing that food in the first place," states Greenawalt. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, food doesn't biodegrade quickly in landfills. And, as it breaks down it releases methane gas, which is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, adds Greenawalt. "Wasted food poses a double whammy."
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures for 2007, 12.5 percent of municipal solid waste generated in the United States is food waste. Another 30.9 percent is composed of containers and packaging. Whereas 42.7 percent of container and packaging waste is recovered for recycling before reaching landfills or incineration facilities, a scant 2.6 percent of food waste is salvaged for composting.
Percent of minicipal solid waste generated in the United States that is food waste.
Those statistics alone provide a strong case for composting—something quickly gaining ground on college and university campuses, either through on-site projects or in partnership with municipalities. While composting tackles a key waste challenge on several fronts—including decreasing fees for waste tonnage and creating a nutrient-rich fertilizer for gardens and grounds—even better may be the elimination of as much pre- and postconsumer waste as possible.
A study by the United Nations Environment Programme released in February found that more than half of the world's food resources are lost or discarded because of consumption patterns and inefficient management of food production and distribution. Developed nations like the United States don't exactly offer models to replicate. Estimates are that nearly one fourth of the country's vegetables and fresh fruits are never consumed due to spoilage in transit.
One waste-curbing approach that is rapidly spreading across higher education campuses is the "trayless" phenomenon. In theory, removing these mainstays of campus dining eliminates the tendency for consumers to take food they won't eat simply because their trays can accommodate more than their stomachs can handle (see sidebar, "What a Difference a Tray Makes").
Going trayless is one useful tool in an arsenal of approaches for reducing waste, says Greenawalt. Bon Appétit is in the midst of a back-of-house waste reduction campaign that involves daily audits of waste generated during food production along with weekly training on the fundamentals of running a good kitchen, including how products are received and stored. "Our goal is to learn how to reduce preconsumer waste by 25 percent," says Greenawalt.
Cooking Up Efficiencies
The move toward local, less-processed foods does often tilt the balance to more preconsumer waste, but some of that can be mitigated, says ISU's Levandowski. "When we started bringing in whole chickens, our culinary team got to demonstrate their knife skills to show production staff how to break these down to make the best use of all the parts."
Proportion of the world's food resources that is lost or discarded because of consumption patterns or ineffiecient management of production and distribution.
Trimming overall waste requires developing a sense of ownership within the entire staff. "Your dishwasher staff know best whether consumers loved the macaroni and cheese but barely touched the lasagna," says Greenawalt. Sometimes waste might signal a problem of portion size, she adds. In that case, better training of servers may be needed. "If someone comes through a line and asks for a bigger piece, the tendency is to then give more to everyone who follows. Instead, we need to instill what a healthy portion looks like and go beyond that only for those who ask," says Greenawalt.
"We've been able to reduce food waste up to 33 percent by focusing on an effective food delivery system," says Stemen. This starts with developing recipes that are appealing to students and purchasing the correct quantities and types of foods. "Otherwise, it's easy to overproduce," adds Stemen. "Incorporating food-to-order stations is another way institutions can minimize food waste."
Bates College diverts approximately 82 percent of its food scraps and leftovers from the waste stream. Pre- and postconsumer waste is sent to a pig farmer, and leftovers are donated to a food bank. The remainder is composted, says Schwartz. She and her staff have effectively reduced overall food waste by one third in recent years through an increased focus on efficiency. In addition to learning how to maximize the use of each product, staff use a database menu management system to review and revamp menus on a weekly basis. "You need to be diligent about recording over- and underproduction and staying in touch with what is taking place on campus so that you can adjust how much you make," says Schwartz.
The new Bates dining hall likewise contributes to newfound efficiencies. In anticipation of increasing local and in-season purchasing, the college incorporated a blast-chill system and doubled its storage capacity to accommodate surpluses for future use. An updated cooking platform allows staff to prepare foods much closer to meal times, further minimizing overproduction by employing just-in-time cooking practices. Nonfood resources are also saved. "By removing garbage disposals from our operations we are able to reduce our water usage by nearly 1.5 million gallons annually," says Schwartz. Motion sensor lights, fume hoods that fire independently, and equipment rated by the Energy Star program (a joint effort by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy to identify efficient products) all contribute to substantial electricity savings.
Bring the Message Home
Because nearly every student and many faculty and staff members visit campus dining venues on a daily basis, there is no better place to demonstrate an institution's commitment to sustainability, posits Stemen. "From the facility itself and how it conserves resources or how it is cleaned, to the entire food service operation and handling of the waste stream, the totality of the dining experience offers a great opportunity to convey a broad message of responsibility and accountability," says Stemen. "Clearly articulating your accomplishments, goals, and commitments is vital to promoting sustainable practices."
Even if your institution lacks the capital investment to renovate or rebuild its student unions, improving food quality and the health of your menus is a low-cost way to differentiate your campus, says Wasserman. "Communicating sustainability commitments through your food service operations is a good value proposition-especially in this economy when a big challenge for many institutions during the next several years may be attracting students and keeping faculty satisfied without significant pay increases," adds Wasserman.
Greenawalt concurs. "If your campus sustainability plan doesn't take into account the actual food served in your dining facilities, you are missing a great opportunity for impact that is meaningful and immediate. Constructing a green building may take some time, but you can change what you serve in your cafe today."
Yet, managing expectations of customers can be difficult. "Many would like to see a consistent menu applied throughout the year no matter what the season," says Miller. "You have to be willing to break expectations."
Levandowski agrees. "In the same way that we work with local farmers to better understand their needs and capacities, and we retrain staff to reduce waste, we have to help educate students and faculty about what we're trying to accomplish and what role they can play."
Closing the food loop requires more than reining in illogical distribution systems and wasteful food cycles. It also has to bring full circle the rationale for consumers about the changes you are making and why. "I often tell college students that they probably aren't going to buy a new car this year, but they do eat several times each day, and, therefore, they can make conscious choices to reduce climate change on a daily basis," says Greenawalt. "In the end, we hope we have an empowering message, and that as people awaken to the impact of their food choices, they will turn to the resources we have in place," she adds. "We see ourselves at the ready for an interested, curious customer base, but we aren't waiting for customer demand to make the change."
KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.