I’m always impressed when an organization takes a soup-to-nuts look at how it can promote sustainability in its operations, and back in July I wrote about how the state Department of Fish and Wildlife was doing just that. Well, there’s another organization closer to home that is showing real leadership in sustainability.
A short while back I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation from the folks at UC Davis Dining Services titled “Eating Away Our Carbon Footprint: Sustainable Practices in UC Dining Services.” What seemed like a rather pedestrian title became a stunning explication of a comprehensive program to pursue sustainability and environmental responsibility.
A brief aside: I sometimes fear that the stream of very positive articles from me about what UC Davis is doing in regards to sustainability might get tiresome for readers but, truly, what is happening on the campus in our community is remarkable and it is pervasive throughout seemingly every nook and cranny of the university’s operations.
So please bear with me as I toot their horn again.
The official goal of the UC system is to provide 20 percent of the food consumed at university facilities from sustainable sources by 2020. UCD, however, already has met that goal, and has set its sights on 40 percent by 2020. And the goal is not just environmental: Staff indicate that doing so can encourage a more “healthy student body” by reducing the “freshman 15” (estimated pounds of weight gained by first-year college students) down to five.
Importantly, they have employees whose jobs are to promote sustainability, a director of sustainability and nutrition, a sustainability manager and a sustainability and education coordinator. Assigning people to reach a goal is the difference between talking about something and actually getting it done.
One of the biggest challenges of eating sustainably is that it generally costs more to purchase, for example, grass-fed beef and eggs from cage-free chickens. UC Dining Services, however, figured out how to offset these increases. A seemingly simple switch from providing a tray for students to use for multiple food items (a plate for a burger, a bowl for fruits, etc.) to not providing the tray had very positive results.
First, and the most obvious, there’s no need to clean trays that aren’t used. Nor is there a need to buy new trays over time. But the real savings were not from the trays themselves. Since there’s less space on a plate than on a tray, students tended to take less food. They ate the same amount, but wasted less. So, the university got a double benefit: reduced cost to buy food and, according to the Dining Service’s bi-quarterly waste audit report, reduced food waste by 50 percent.
The “no tray” practice has become a national norm for university food systems.
UCD also instituted a “Try a Taste” program that lets students taste a menu item before putting it on their plate. This practice also significantly reduced waste.
UCD Dining Services, as mentioned above, provides grass-fed beef for burgers as well as cage-free eggs for various menu items. There is a standing “Meatless Monday” promotion wherein, while meat is still on the menu, a non-meat item is highlighted and advertised as a vegetarian option.
They also organize a “Green Chef Challenge” similar to the popular Iron Chef challenges, to come up with recipes that take advantage of food sourced from the Student Farm. And the Cuarto Dining Hall is generally recognized as having the best salad bar in Yolo County.
Initiation of food composting at all resident dining halls and other eating establishments was a key factor in increasing the university’s overall waste diversion.
And just how thorough is UCD Dining Services in its approach to sustainability of the campus food system? Two examples serve to give an idea. Have you ever wanted a Snickers bar when at a football game at Aggie Stadium? You won’t find one because the wrappers are not compostable. Aggie Stadium is a zero-waste facility, right down to the replacement of plastic straws with compostable straws.
And, if you wonder why you can’t find a plastic lid for your soft drink at the Coffee House, it’s because thus far they have been unable to find a lid that is compostable.
The UCD program also reaches into the community. It operates a “Food Recovery Network” that sends surplus production from the Student Farm to Davis Community Meals and César Chávez Plaza.
As a parent of a student who attended one of the other UC campuses, I was particularly impressed with the UCD “Swipe Out Hunger” program. Students are issued cards (like a credit card) to “swipe” at any of the various food outlets on campus. Through Thursday, students may sign up to donate a maximum of 10 swipes worth of food to the Yolo Food Bank. In 2012, this allowed Dining Services to purchase (at cost from its bulk food provider) 335 cases of food that the Food Bank was able to use to assist 8,000 to 10,000 Yolo County families.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; this column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]