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Schools Go Sustainable: Greening College Food Services
Young people often turn deaf ears to the adult platitudes hurled at them every day, such as "you are what you eat." As good as that advice may be, youth often make better judgments based on personal experiences. For environmentally conscious youth, that means it's not just what you eat but where the food comes from and how it was grown or raised.
These days, college students around the country are demanding sustainable food practices from their dining services. From supporting local farm stands on campuses to teaching dining service staff how to cook with local and sustainable ingredients to participating in national campaigns to raise awareness about green eating, young learners have become integral to the larger process of change. The term "sustainable" in this case refers to agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly (i.e. organic or with minimal pesticides), support local small farmers and promote healthy, diversified diets.
"Students get it," said Anna Lappé, a sustainability food expert, author and the co-founder of the Small Planet Institute who often speaks at campuses around the country to promote sustainable eating. "The most common question I get from students is, 'We know we need to be promoting sustainable food -- what can we do?'" She usually responds to the question with examples of what other schools have done, which is no short list.
Tracking Food Change
Julian Dautremont-Smith, sustainability expert and associate director at the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Learning, or AASHE, says that one thing his organization does is connect like-minded students at schools across the country so they can compare notes and learn from each other.
"We do a lot of information-sharing -- there is a lot of reinventing the wheel, and it is helpful for people to hear about what other schools have done," said Dautremont-Smith. The Association also runs a program that allows both students and administrators to track and compare the sustainability of their practices, a large part of which is devoted to sustainable eating. The program, called the "Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System," or STARS, is a guide and comparison tool, and its existence unites and strengthens the growing community of colleges that care about their environmental footprint.
According to Dautremont-Smith, more than 90 colleges are participating in the pilot project for the new system. "It is already catalyzing change," he said. The project gives points for enacting and sustaining various practices, and it includes a substantial dining services section. "Universities get points for using organic and environmentally-sound methods," said Dautremont-Smith. "I think the food elements of STARS will be really big in the program."
Another initiative bolstering national sustainable food trends is the Real Food Challenge, which originated in California with Tim Galarneau, a UC Santa Cruz graduate who currently works at the University of California schools' Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, or CASFS, as a food systems education and research specialist.
The Real Food Challenge bears some similarity to STARS in that it also evaluates schools' food programs, but with a color-based system instead of a point system. Schools that accept the "Challenge" are committed to reaching the 20 percent mark by 2020; that is, 20 percent or more of their food purchases will be "real food," which is defined by factors like humane animal treatment, organic ingredients, fair trade practices, and making local purchases. "The Real Food Challenge takes multiple issues relating to sustainable food and sets an achievable goal for the national food market," said Galarneau. Students and schools make changes based on what is available to them in their financial range and geographical area.
Galarneau says the beauty of the Real Food Challenge is that there are many different ways to meet it. The Challenge uses a "multi-variant calculator" to analyze the sustainability of a particular ingredient; for example, if eggs are cage-free, that is good, but if they are cage-free and organic, it is better. If they are cage-free, organic, and don't have to travel very far to get to the school, then it is even better. "Whether it is about meat-producing practices or fair trade," he said, "we are able, with the calculator, to integrate issues. How it happens -- how they meet 20 percent -- is all dependent on where they are, on what is possible and what is accessible."
On an individual level, many schools have come especially far in their quest for sustainable dining on campuses. According to Galarneau, pioneer schools like Yale University and UC Santa Cruz are exporting their sustainability models to help other schools get closer to their green goals.
Others are also setting the bar high, which has the added benefit of allowing students around the country to see what is possible. Portland State University was the first to include reports on local food purchases for food service in 2005 in their Request for Proposal (or RFP -- a document inviting suppliers to solicit business from Portland State), according to sustainable coordinator Noelle Studer at PSU's Facilities and Planning Department.
Visionaries across the country model a variety of ways to reach sustainability goals. Dautremont-Smith reports that the Maharishi University of Management serves the country's first 100 percent organic and vegetarian menu on their campus in Fairfield, Iowa.
As more and more schools join the sustainability movement, they are looking to these innovators for inspiration and real advice. At Columbia University in New York City, a small army of students led by sophomore Becky Davies is working hard to resurrect the defunct Columbia University Food Sustainability Project. "We are always looking to see what other schools do," said Davies, "because they work with a lot of the same companies and have a lot of the same problems."
Big Food, Big Challenges
One challenge that Davies and many of her peers encounter is dealing with long-term contracts with food distributors, like Columbia's with Sysco, North America's largest food service distributor.
"It is not easy to make changes when you are working with such a huge company," said Davies. "The hardest part about is figuring out where the food even comes from," said Davies, who is in communication with Sysco to help change the menus at Columbia. "Sysco will tell you these eggs are local, for example -- from New Jersey -- but they could still be industrial standard eggs, and those are the ones that come whole, not in a box, which is definitely not what we want," she said. "There is a lot of just trying to figure out where the food comes from before we do anything else."
Determining where the supply comes from is usually more difficult when dealing with national food services like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo, whose enormous warehouses and transportation infrastructure make it possible for food to come from, well, anywhere.
"The big challenge is finding your supply," Lappé said. Choosing a food supplier that you support -- like a local farmer -- is one easy way to avoid having to hunt for the source of the food in the bowels of a national warehouse, according to Lappé. Brown University, for example, teamed up with Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a local farmers' organization, to open a market on campus hawking fresh seasonal foods.
However, Lappé says that not all campuses have ready access to local farms, and in some states liability issues arise with small farmers that are uninsured. In these cases, Lappé said, it might be more fruitful to negotiate with national food service groups. According to Noelle Studer, Sodexo was "a great partner" in their endeavor to enlarge their local food portfolio, and Davies is part of a growing community that applauds Sysco's commitment to transparency in their food supply.
Climate and Collaboration
For Davies, communication with other programs like the Real Food Challenge and the Council on the Environment of New York City, the group that manages the city's outdoor Greenmarkets, is crucial for success. "We really need them for advice and help, and to make sure the school takes us seriously," she said.
At some schools, competing philosophies about what sustainability is can make it difficult to make changes. One issue, organic and pesticide-free food versus local food, comes into play at schools where the climate is fickle. At Columbia in New York City, for example, Sysco Foods offers some organic options but very little in the way of local ingredients. "We would like to focus on local stuff more than organic, but it is really difficult," said Davies.
At the California schools, it is much easier to focus on local ingredients, because local agriculture is in large supply. "We really have a wide range of choices," said Galarneau.
For Dautremont-Smith, getting bogged down with philosophy is missing the point. "It is too complicated to focus on organic versus local," he said. "I think that issue needs holistic evaluation, taking into account what the students want and the specific circumstances of the school."
Often, the specific circumstances of the school are determined by whatever their contract with the big food distributor dictates. Some students would like to see these contracts terminated because of the limitations of the terms. When Galarneau was at UC Santa Cruz in 2002, students and staff teamed up to pressure the administration to end their contract with Sodexo-Marriott. The administration responded, terminated the contract and helped students develop an in-house food service system. They set up a collaborative model that allowed students, staff and community members to work, and the dining service went from zero to 24 percent local and socially responsible food.
While this story is inspiring, analysts say that terminating contracts completely might be untenable for many other schools, particularly for schools that are in places where sustainable food might be in short supply. Furthermore, Galarneau says that pressuring major food distributors to operate sustainably might be an effective way to incur change.
"Talking to the distributor and buyers can be the most useful [tactic]," Galarneau said. Indeed, Sodexo has recently hired a vice president of sustainability to address students' concerns. "Once you have trust and a relationship with the distributors, you can start to make changes when contracts are up for renewal or reevaluation," he said. Furthermore, Galarneau points out that creating contacts with the food distributors promotes lasting relationships between them and the school. "Student advocates will be gone in a year," he said. "If you build a relationship with distributors you might see lasting change," he said.
For more information:
Association for the Advancement of Sustainabililty in Higher Learning (AASHE)
Visit Anna Lappé's Small Planet
Learn more at California Schools' Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASSF)
Talia Berman is a freelance food writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She can be contacted at bermanta [at] gmail [dot] com.