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The Statesman

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    Nationwide, Colleges Step Up Sustainable Food Efforts

    Organic tofu and sunflower seeds on fresh spinach greens. Roasted zucchini and hand-formed lamb hamburgers. Grilled wasabi salmon with mashed sweet potatoes and coconut frozen fruit bars for dessert.

    These are not the menus of five-star restaurants in New York City. These are menus of universities across the nation that are committed to serving sustainable food in their dining halls.

    The movement towards serving sustainable food at universities has gained a strong following over the past couple of years.

    University of California at Berkeley boasts organic salad bars in every dining hall, Yale University’s sustainable food project remains at the forefront of schools that serve locally grown food, and more recently, Stony Brook University has joined the trend in making food on campus more sustainable.

    90 miles east of New York City lies Stony Brook Southampton, the latest campus to commit to serving wholesome, fresh food produced in its kitchen. The dining hall boasts a “no fried foods” policy, with a sign to that effect plastered next to the daily menu.

    Here, students can chose from locally grown foods that have been chosen for their healthiness. Foods like vegetarian lasagna with a side salad are labeled for nutritional value — green for the healthiest, red for those that should be eaten in moderation.

    “We want students to sit down and eat,” Martin Schoonen, dean of Stony Brook Southampton, said.

    In September, the university hosted its first Harvest Dinner. All the food came from the campus vegetable garden or was harvested in local waters. The dinner of vegetarian chili, sea scallops, blue potatoes and butternut squash soup was a hit with students and faculty alike. The campus vegetable garden is overseen by Professor Jeffrey Goodman. The 1,600-square-foot plot is a source of the fruits and vegetables in the kitchen, reducing the trip from farm to kitchen.

    “Food has a huge ecological footprint,” Schoonen said. “The transportation, et cetera, often has more calories than the food itself.”

    Food calories often come from not just the nutritional value of the food, but the amount of energy it takes to transport the food to campus kitchens.

    The United States annually transports $120 billion of produce, averaging around 1,500 miles from farm to fork, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    At Stony Brook’s main campus, officials are taking steps to promote local and environmentally conscious food services.

    For the last three years, Campus Dining has offered a sustainable seafood program.

    In October, Campus Dining hosted a one-day on-campus Farmer’s Market so the campus community could purchase produce grown in Long Island and New Jersey. Because of the massive size of the university, and its location, however, it may be hard for Stony Brook to go completely local.

    “Our local region does not offer as much opportunity as other areas because farms are not as plentiful on Long Island, and the produce they produce tends to be seasonal,” Angela Agnello, director of marketing and communications at Stony Brook’s Faculty Student Association, said. Agnello oversees the dining service.

    She estimated that during the late summer, when Long Island produce is in season, up to 50 percent of the fruits sold on campus are local.

    Instead, Stony Brook has turned its attention to other eco-friendly food acts.

    The new Roth food court houses Pura Vida Coffee Bar, which serves fair-trade organic coffee, hot drinks and pastries.

    This semester, for the first time, biodegradable utensils and paperware have replaced all non-recyclable plastics. A new composter in Roth Quad will start recycling food waste from its dining hall.

    “We want to teach people how to create a sustainable food program,” Kevin Kelly, director of the Faculty Student Association, said.

    At other schools across the country, the commitment to environmentally-conscious food services goes further. At UC Berkeley, 40 percent of all food, including organic milk and eggs, is served by the in-house dining service and comes from local farmers within a 16-county radius around the school. UC Berkeley is one of a handful of schools that chose to switch to an in-house dining system rather than contract out their food services.

    The university was influenced by the surrounding area.

    Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, brought the idea of sustainable food to five-star restaurants in the early ’70s, paving the way for a new way of thinking about the food on our plate.

    Companies like Aramark and Chartwells are mass campus-dining food distributors. Because of the scale of the companies, they are able to get reasonable prices for the large amount of food that a college campus demands.

    Because these companies are so large, however, many of the produce and meat come from large-scale farms, where sustainability is not a priority.

    For UC Berkeley, who made the switch to the in-house model five years ago, the new system brought an unforeseeable benefit. “Our meal prices have actually gone down, and staff and faculty are buying more meal plans,” Chuck Davies, associate director of residential dining at UC Berkeley, said.

    Davies said that smart purchases and downsizing unnecessary food costs made it easy for the school to transition to purchasing more locally grown food. Yale Sustainable Food Project is at the forefront of the sustainable food trend, creating the model that other universities have been aiming to follow.

    The program started five years ago, with the guidance of Berkeley’s Waters, with a completely sustainable dining hall. The food became so popular that the university had to expand the program to all the college dining facilities.

    Currently 40 percent of the food Yale serves is either locally-grown or ethically-handled, like using free-range chickens that are grown around New Haven, Conn.

    The food project, in addition to promoting the menus on campus, is committed to teaching Yale students about American food culture. Departments from Political Science to Environmental Studies teach about everything from food legislation to the environmental effects of mass-produced food. Unlike UC Berkeley, Yale’s transition wasn’t cheap. The cost of having sustainable food, however, isn’t reflected in food prices because Yale subsidizes students’ meal plans.

    Yale now spends 30 percent more on its food service, according to Anastatia Curley, communications director at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

    The increase came from all sides — from obtaining local food to teaching the chefs how to cook it.

    “They’re not unsealing a vacuum-packed bag and putting it in a microwave,” Curley said. “The chefs have to learn what to do with those tomatoes.”

    Yale’s dining services may have become more expensive because unlike UC Berkeley, which is in close proximity to a large number of farms that supply food throughout the nation, Yale is in New England, where only limited types of food are available year round.

    One thing that prevents many schools from following Yale’s example is the fear that going local will be more expensive. But some advocates for sustainable dining do think there is a benefit. “It’s good for the university because it can be a marketing tool,” Cecily Upton, a spokesperson for Slow Food on Campus, which promotes serving locally grown food on campus, said.

    Upton said she has seen the rise from zero to 15 schools over two years that have become committed to serving sustainable food.

    Boston University and Rutgers are trying to change from using a catered food service, like Chartwells at Stony Brook, to an in-house dining system, like Yale and UC Berkeley, to increase the amount of locally grown food on campus.

    “It takes a real desire to get it done, but the schools have made it a priority,” Upton said.

    But all schools agree that certain foods will never be local at universities
    . The demand is too great.

    “Students want their coffee and bananas,” Davies said. “You can’t grow things like chocolate locally.” At the same time, small steps seem to be the best way to start.

    “If you can change even one food item purchased in your dining hall from conventionally grown to organic, think of the magnitude of that change,” Nina Merrill, author of “Organic on the Green,” a blog about sustainable food movements at universities from the Organic Trade Association, said.

    Merrill mentioned that many universities start small by switching to selling organic cotton t-shirts and fair trade coffee. Princeton University started by selling locally grown apples, then moved on to coffee and fish. But most agree that it seems that the biggest benefit from sustainable dining might just be the food that comes out of the kitchen.

    “It’s nice to know that our school is doing all it can to encourage us to start living a sustainable, responsible life,” Connie Wang, a senior at UC Berkeley, said. “Plus, their fresh greens for salads and the fruit are so amazing.”

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