Food Sustainability-at places of learning (Part 2)

Follow up to my earlier blog piece on food sustainability initiatives at some of the leading educational institutes around NYC, this piece focuses more on Sustainable Food Practices through the lens of one University, Columbia University in the City of New York. Here’s what I found out.

Columbia University dining serves 12,000 meals a day on campus and each meal consists of 500 pounds of protein. According to the Director of Dining services at Columbia University, “There is very little waste that happens at the other stages due to a lean purchasing strategy. Additionally, to avoid food waste, a lot of food is first prepped in a raw state and not cooked. We do this by following a production report- it proves to be a helpful tool to ensure the right amount is cooked based on experience and estimates.” This implies most food waste at the University happens at the post-cooking/consumer stage.

However, they have found an innovative means of reducing even this category of food waste by reusing much of the leftover; such as coffee is served as iced coffee, bananas are made into banana pudding etc.

An important but unavoidable source of food waste at Columbia (which is probably also true for other educational institutions) is when food is thrown out because it has been exposed over a meal period. This happens because a large percentage of students have meals throughout the meal period, which involves dining services continuously replenishing the displayed food for the dining laggers so that the food experience of the last student is no less than that of the first student. This food unfortunately due to current Board of Health regulations cannot be recovered (i.e. donated). One way around this waste according to a LeanPath® case study on Boston College was, “Front-line staff members came up with a creative idea to scale back the salad bar after peak time by using different merchandising, displaying upside-down pans as the centerpiece and using smaller pans for the product.”2

In another initiative, Columbia Dining and the sustainable student body (also known as EcoReps) jointly initiated and managed an on-campus composter. Additionally, a partnership between the University and GrowNYC encourages both the on campus and off campus community to bring over their food scraps for composting to the Greenmarkets that visit the campus once a week. About 20 gallons of food scraps each day are collected for composting. Amazingly, Columbia Dining also recovers and recycles about 4,000 gallons of cooking oil annually through The Doe Fund. They in turn have a program in place that trains men for future employment – and gives them immediate employment in picking up cooking oil from restaurants and other dining locations. They then work with METRO® Biofuels to recycle the oil into bio diesel fuel.

Over the years, quite a few sustainable supplier practices have also been put in place, which are noticeable even to the indifferent eye. For example, bottled water is not served at most events on campus; the preferred means being to have tall glass jars of tap water. The estimated 6.6 million napkins used annually are made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content.  Biodegradable plates, bowls, cups, and flatware are used in almost all dining areas as well as reusable disposable/to-go containers. Coffee being a huge consumable by students, teachers, and staff alike, a more eco-friendly “rippled” coffee cup was recently introduced that would eliminate the need for coffee sleeves. Made from 75% recycled materials with non-toxic, water-based ink, the cup will divert approximately 4,500 pounds of waste from landfills annually3.

Students go a long way in both advocating and inspiring some of the more success University initiatives. For example, the University introduced sustainable seafood and local purchasing (as much as practical) which were huge hits on their own merit, however others such as ‘plate scraping’ were student proposed ideas and equally popular. This particular idea consists of making students aware of how much leftover they left on their plates that had to be scraped and thrown away. It both made them aware as well as guilt-ed them into changing their behavior. With this they were able to reduce food waste from 220 pounds per meal period (in 2009) to 20 pounds per meal period (presently).

The good news is, Universities are not alone when it comes to practicing sustainability. STARS, The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System, is a transparent framework for self-reporting by colleges and universities that produces detailed measurements of sustainability performances.  It was developed by AASHE, The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.  Columbia University was previously graded on the College Sustainability Report Card. In 2012, Columbia received an overall Gold rating from STARS.  Dining received the maximum points of 6.0/6.0 based on the percentage of food and beverage expenditures devoted to sustainable food and beverages, which was 51.79%.  Dining was also rated on a variety of measures introduced.

In conclusion, the picture I saw is that of definite improvements on college campuses across the nation both in terms of food offerings and food practices. The only way to keep this up or even take things up a notch is by both being aware of the larger issues in the area of Food Sustainability and asking for the better changes. After all, there are many ways of influencing sustainability in our lives and many start right in our kitchen or in this case, the University kitchen.

columbia dining

Students eating at John Jay Hall source: columbia.edu

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