Sustainability on the Menu College Cafeterias are Buying Local and Going Organic

Cafeterias are ground zero for “greening” a school, and the past year has seen great leaps in local and organic food purchasing: from cage-free eggs and fair-trade coffee to composting at schools nationwide. According to the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s 2007 report card (which looks at environmental initiatives at the 200 colleges and universities with the largest endowment assets in the U.S. and Canada), 70 percent of schools “devote at least a portion of food budgets to buying from local farms and/or producers.” Twenty-nine percent of schools on the institute’s list earned an “A” in the “food and recycling” category.

Some schools clearly stand out. At Santa Clara University in California, 80 percent of the produce served in the dining halls comes from local farms. Carleton College in Minnesota purchases from 15 to 20 local farmers and producers, serves grass-fed meat and uses 100 percent organic flour in all baking. In Massachusetts, Smith College’s dining services purchase organic produce, in addition to dairy and honey, from 18 local farms. The college has even removed bottled water from one to-go location and distributes polycarbonate bottles to be refilled and reused by students. Food scraps are brought to a local farm to be composted.

Bon Appétit Management Company provides food to 17 U.S. campuses, from American University in Washington, D.C. to Washington University in St. Louis. And the company purchases only sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs and hosts the Farm to Fork Program, bringing small, local farmers big business.

Chefs at McAllister College in Minneapolis buy cottage cheese direct from a local dairy, and bison meat from a local rancher. “The chefs are making commitments with local producers, and farmers can improve their business,” says Haven Bourque of Bon Appétit.

Ivy League Lessons

Yale University has provided healthy, sustainable eating options—organic and locally grown foods—for years. Daily menus announce the sustainable options, including all-sustainable Tuesday dinners. The Yale Sustainable Food Project shares its information through nutritional cards in dining halls. “Students start looking at their footprints,” says Josh Viertel, one of the Food Project’s directors. “It’s about the ethics embedded in you through your education.”

Viertel and fellow director Melina Shannon-DiPietro say that Yale’s local purchasing program brings more local, organic, sustainable produce to campus cafeterias. “Food tied to tradition and tied to the environment around it helps students become more aware of their impacts,” Viertel says.

Yale also has a student-run farm, three greenhouses that serve the community and a farmer’s market in the spring and summer months. Says Anastasia Curley, coordinator at the Food Project, “We try to strike a balance between food and wellness and general information about agriculture and green events going on at Yale.” On a brisk December afternoon, Curley showed off garden plots where carrots, cabbage, spinach and other cold-tolerant vegetables were growing in 30-degree weather. Students at Yale have even harvested carrots during blizzards.

But Robert Sullivan, assistant director of operations at Yale’s dining services, says the majority of students have not fully embraced sustainability. “Some are focused on eating vegan, others on pizza,” he says. “The balance is challenging.” Yale’s cafeterias offer grass-fed beef burgers, organic quiches and a whole assortment of locally grown produce. “We’ve been working with the distribution companies to ensure they buy from Connecticut and New Haven farmers,” says Thomas Peterlik, executive chef at Yale.

A recent composting initiative at Yale was rejected after a trial period, but Sullivan says the impetus is still there. “We have a food salvage group that will contact the groups in the area to donate the food,” he says.

Princeton University Dining Services has been working with the college’s own “Greening Princeton” program. Student representative Kathryn Anderson says it started small. “The first thing we did was look at how to get organic cereal into the dining hall,” she says. “We now have a large purchasing effort to make meats organic.” All the chicken breast and ground beef the school serves is organic or local. Seafood purchased by dining services is raised and processed via sustainable means.

Waste Not

Princeton’s excess food is packaged and distributed to local food shelters. And food wastes from the dining halls are collected into bins and sent to a local pig farm for feed.

1204216061S Composting CT College
Tyler Dunham (left) and Misha Johnson dump food scraps into one of Connecticut College’s commercial-size composting units.

Connecticut College’s proposal for a composting system lost out on MTV and GE’s “Ecoimagination Challenge,” but an alumnus made a $25,000 contribution to fund the initiative. “By having a composting system on campus we can reduce the distance that the food scraps have to travel, and then we can use them to grow food locally, either on campus or in the local area,” says Misha Johnson, a student who runs the campus’ organic garden.

Pre- and post-consumer food waste generated by Connecticut College totals 8,000 and 9,000 pounds a week, but the compost initiative re-directs 500 pounds of waste daily. The college also sends food scraps to a local pig farm for feed. “By creating a community of consciousness around food producers and consumers, the environment can and will benefit,” Johnson says. “We want students and the greater community to realize that food is more than just what one sits down to eat at a meal.” That higher consciousness includes one all-vegetarian cafeteria on campus.

Campuses seeking sustainable waste disposal can go beyond compost piles and pig feed, too. Campus Kitchens Project allows volunteers to dispense unused foods to the elderly and homeless in local communities. Gonzaga College in Spokane, Washington, Northwestern University in Chicago, Augsburg College in Minnesota and Dillard University in New Orleans have all signed on to the program. Environmental concerns are tied to social ones, and initiatives like these serve not only the students, but the local population and the planet at large.