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College Campuses Opt for Sustainable Dining

It took only a few weeks for the news to spread last fall: The food served at Yale University’s Berkeley College dining hall was the best on campus. Students assigned to eat in the 11 other residential colleges (Yale’s version of dorms) wanted in. One day, eight students tried to sneak by the check-in clerk with forged IDs, but the imposters were discovered. Writing in a campus newspaper, one of the ID forgers complained that the dining hall’s few spots for guests "are taken by the losers who get into line 20 minutes before the damned place even opens."

Yale students enjoy the sustainable menu at the Berkeley College dining hall. Oberlin, Middlebury College and Stanford also offer healthy meal programs.©Michael Marsland/Yale University

Why are Yale students resorting to identity theft? The draw is Yale’s new "sustainable dining program," which offers meals made from local, seasonal and sustainably grown food, cooked using recipes developed under the guidance of famed California restaurateur Alice Waters.

Across the nation, from The College of the Atlantic on the Maine coast to Stanford University in California, college cafeterias are increasingly working to bypass, at least in part, the corporate food industry. Sometimes in response to student pressure, sometimes in keeping with institutional philosophies, a growing number of schools are reducing their use of pre-fab foods: those mammoth plastic bags of shredded iceberg lettuce, stacks of frozen beef patties and cardboard containers of pourable beaten eggs—all food of uncertain age and provenance. Instead, they are "cooking whole," from scratch, and incorporating local, organic and seasonal foods into their menus. A few institutions are getting some of their food from right on campus, harvested from student-run organic gardens.

Advocates of sustainable dining argue that the ripple effects from this reorientation can be far-reaching, even transformative. They hope that recreating local networks of food production and distribution will revive local economies; influence farmers to grow foods responsibly; save farms and thereby stem sprawl; enrich the curriculum; reduce consumption of oil used for fertilizers and trucking; combat obesity by providing alternatives to highly processed foods; and restore mealtime to its place as the center of social life.

Joshua L. Viertel, the program’s director, says, "It starts with the menu." On a recent burger day, dining hall offerings also included Boston clam chowder, Japanese mushroom soup, smoked ham and gruyére sandwiches, and pizettas with sweet potato and goat cheese. "So many environmental movements are based on self-denial," Viertel says. "This takes a hedonistic pleasure in doing the right thing."

Joshua Viertel, director of the Sustainable Food Initiative at Yale, procures produce from a community garden in New Haven.©Michael Marsland/Yale University

Nine months into its transformative program, Yale’s Berkeley College manages to get about half its produce from regional suppliers (compared to 20 percent in the other dining halls). Viertel notes that the $6.5 million Yale spends annually on food for undergraduates could help sustain farms in a state that loses more than 8,000 acres of cropland each year. "We cast our vote three times a day," he says.

The pilot program at Yale faces a major obstacle: food costs under the new regime run about 50 percent higher than those for conventional meals. That gap is now bridged by a grant from an anonymous donor.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, 1993 graduate Brad Masi tells the story of how he and fellow students succeeded in redirecting college dining money into northeastern Ohio. It began in 1990, when some of the 650 co-op housing students, who run their own kitchens, decided to buy more local food. That first year, they managed to spend $10,000 locally. By 2002-2003, the co-ops and the college dining service together spent $225,000 of a $2.84 million annual food budget locally. "We felt like we actually impacted the local economy, and reduced the fossil fuel involved in hauling all that food from 1,300 miles away," says Masi.

Oberlin’s food waste goes back into the soil at a three-acre organic garden a mile off campus, at the college’s 70-acre George Jones Farm, which Masi now manages. Kitchen grease can be converted into biodiesel using a bike-powered processor that Oberlin junior Sam Merrett designed and built. Masi hopes to use biodiesel to fuel the farm’s tractor.

Masi feels encouraged by his work. "When I was a student taking environmental courses, I started to get a sense that humans were parasites, spreading over the Earth, depleting and polluting." Now, working out of a farm office built of local clay, straw and timber, he believes that careful land use can revitalize ecosystems while providing food, energy and shelter.

Buying locally is business as usual if you live in Vermont, says Matthew Biette, director of dining services at Middlebury College, a liberal arts school with 2,667 students. "This is the culture of Vermont." Middlebury depends on local sources for about a quarter of its food, not only produce but sausage, venison, turkey, pasta, bread, ice cream and chocolate. The dining service grows its own salad greens in a greenhouse heated both by the sun and by radiant heat tubes that are warmed by rotting compost.

Hormone-free milk comes from Monument Farms Dairy down the road, which Middlebury has patronized for more than 50 years. "What they milk this afternoon hits our tables in the morning," says Biette.

While buying food locally does not cost Biette extra, fair trade coffee does. The requisite 10,000 pounds of beans cost him a third more for fair trade, or an extra $20,000 annually. So Biette made a deal with students who requested the coffee: Reduce waste in the dining hall and the money saved can go toward coffee. So far, says Biette, it’s working.

Stanford University dining services director Nadeem Siddiqui is developing his sustainable dining program cautiously. "I’ve seen organic programs fail because financially they can’t support themselves," he says.

The university buys two to five percent of its food from regional farms, including the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association, a 110-acre organic teaching farm about two hours south in Salinas. Marketing director Dina Izzo sends e-mails to seven Stanford chefs telling them which fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest, takes orders, then delivers them the next day.

Saddiqui has already told the university’s big supplier, U.S. Foods, that he won’t buy chicken from Tyson Foods because of its labor record. Having grown up in Pakistan, where meals provided occasions for leisurely conversation, he sees good food as a means of recapturing societal integrity.

A slower pace is already apparent at Yale, says English lecturer Margaret Spillane. "The difference is in the atmosphere. There is a much more focused, settled feeling to the dining hall. People are actually dining rather than just chowing down." Sophomore Laura Hess appreciates the chance to eat sustainably. "The fact that I can go and eat really good food with my friends has really changed my life—and made me feel more grounded."