10 Ways to Increase University Food Service Sustainability

By September 4, 2014

While I was completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in Honors Environment and Business, Co-op, I was involved in the University of Waterloo Sustainability Project  working on various environmental projects across campus. I was constantly impressed by the sustainability initiatives undertaken by the Food Services Department. For example, Food Services shows commitment to supporting the local economy by offering a farmer’s market to provide fresh, local produce, honey and baked goods to students, staff, and faculty. The Waterloo Campus also uses environmentally friendly, compostable cutlery and take-out containers at all of its dining locations and cafeteria trays that are made out of recycled material. The University of Waterloo’s Food Department is on the  front lines of developing and executing environmental initiatives that leave a smaller carbon footprint on our planet, promote the well-being of students, faculty, and staff and save the University money.

Meanwhile, “sustainability” is the new buzzword in University Food Service, as they’re increasingly incorporating environmental initiatives that promote healthier eating and reduce waste and energy usage. And it’s no wonder, when a sustainable focus makes educational, environmental and economic sense for any academic cafeteria. Making your university cafeteria more sustainable doesn’t need to be an expensive investment or an overwhelming project.  Start by reviewing these ten simple ideas. Small steps go a long way.

1. Have Local Produce Available

“What we eat is what we become.” My parents used to always say that to me. The local-and-seasonal food movement is gaining popularity because people are becoming aware of the associated health and environmental impacts of their food choices. By making locally grown fruits and vegetables accessible to your students, you can promote healthy eating , more sustainable choices and a superior learning environment.  Brown University in Providence, RI offers locally farmed apples and has recently begun to provide local tomatoes, peaches and milk. Similarly, the University of Montana offers locally produced meat, wheat, and dairy products, while at Evergreen State College, 35% of the food sold is local and organic.

With growing awareness and education, students are making better nutritional choices and they’re looking for healthier food options. Since they rarely have the time or means to cook, and don’t always have the funds to constantly eat out, they depend heavily on their university’s cafeteria to satisfy their daily nutritional needs. If healthy choices are available at universities, then students are more likely to avoid poor food choices that can lead to lower productivity and performance in school and in life. Now you just have to step-up and provide those better options for them.

2. Provide Reusable Utensils and Containers to Minimize Waste

Instead of using plastic cutlery that is non-biodegradable and poor for the environment, invest in stainless steel cutlery and utensils that can be washed and re-used daily. For example, the University of Vermont has developed an effective hybrid program. They have stainless steel utensils available, but for those students who prefer plastic, reusable utensils, the university sells reusable “sporks” for a buck each. When you absolutely have to use disposable utensils or dishware, look for biodegradable and compostable options like those made from corn and potatoes!

Everyone is on the go, but that doesn’t mean that your campus should be littered with toxic Styrofoam takeout containers. Review the multitude of biodegradable and reusable options available and increase your landfill diversion rate. For example, EcoTakeouts are financially-smart containers can be checked out by students and then returned to be sanitized. They’re also stack-able, recyclable, and dishwasher/microwave safe. At Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, “students get a free Tupperware-style container they can use, return dirty and trade in for a clean one. Students who lose them will be charged $5 for a replacement. The change will eliminate the use of 120,000 foam containers a year.”

3. Introduce an Effective Recycling and Compost Program

University cafeterias typically generate large amounts of trash and food waste, but with proper recycling this problem can be almost eliminated. An effective recycling program differentiates among types of waste, rather than piling everything in the garbage. However, education is critical to the success of any waste management program, and clearly marked bins don’t hurt either. Outreach efforts such as posters or flyers can help explain programs and increase campus awareness of sustainability initiatives. At Iowa State University, “brightly colored posters in the dining halls vividly displayed before‐and‐after results of an October 2008 Food Waste Campaign, helping students discern which waste items could be composted. Students within ISU Dining Services made T‐shirts featuring slogans such as ‘Compost Happens’ to inform other students that their food waste would become a ‘usable product’ at ISU’s composting facility.” Iowa State has also been able to avoid significant disposal charges as a result of their recycling efforts!

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) The U.S. generates more than 34 million tons of food waste each year, which makes it the largest component filling landfills today. Implementing a compost program can drastically reduce these statistics. An inspiring story comes from Oberlin College where a project converted grounds tractors and lawn mowers to run on leftover vegetable oil from the dining halls. Even with the additional expenses for engine conversion and oil collection, Oberlin estimates a annual cost savings of $4,660.

4. Energy Star Equipment

Commercial kitchens use incredible amounts of energy and water. When purchasing any type of equipment, such as a dishwasher, look for Energy Star Rated items. Energy Star products are independently certified to save energy without sacrificing features or functionality. They use less energy, are good for the environment, and can save your university a lot of money. Harvard University has invested over $900,000 in equipment upgrades and estimates an average 28% return on investment. By reducing both water and energy needs, more efficient equipment can be incredibly cost-effective in the long run. Similarly, the University of Notre Dame reports a annual savings of $600 on Energy Star fryers and and a savings of over $1,000 in energy and water use for dishwashers.

5. Reduce Paper Use

One creative way to eliminate the use of paper in print menus or other promotional material is to use a chalk board instead to provide a rundown of the daily or weekly food menu. You can reinvent your food options easily to keep your menu enticing and exciting. Place the board right in front of the cafeteria so that it’s easy to see and always accessible. This will eliminate extra cost of purchasing paper and other resources.

Another more obvious suggestion is to replace paper towels with hand dryers next to your sinks for faculty and students to use after washing their hands. There are many types of hand dryers and purchasing one can save energy and HVAC expenses. Also, consider having towels available as opposed to napkins to clean up spills and messes, and use napkin dispensers to encourage students to grab fewer at once. Always reduce paper use where possible, but otherwise use 100% recycled paper.

6. Go Tray-less

As trays are used to carry plates, cups and utensils, they need to be washed daily to keep cleanliness a top priority. Plus, using a tray may encourage a student to grab more food than necessary, leading to even more food waste. From an environmental angle, the truth is in the numbers. At the University of Illinois, eliminating food trays saves them 516 gallons of water a day, or 110,940 gallons in an academic year.  By loosing the trays, your dining service can save money by using less energy to produce meals, create less food waste and eliminate the need for hot water and detergent for washing trays. By removing trays at Knox College, a dining official predicts a 30-50%  reduction in food waste, allowing the college to save $30,000 annually in food purchases.

7. Eliminate Plastic Water Bottles

At the University of California, San Diego they provide a reusable water bottle to each and every student at the beginning of the year to eliminate Styrofoam and plastic waste. Hence, students are encouraged to get into the habit of carrying their reusable water bottles around and refilling them at water stations. Using water filters and and reusable bottles around campus will ultimately save your university money due to the high cost of bottled water. After a few uses a reusable water pays for itself.  At Dartmouth students can purchase an affordable reusable water bottle at events held the main dining halls.  Going even further, the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, IN is putting those old plastic bottles to use and working towards the use of more recycled products, like picnic tables and benches, made from recycled plastic bottles.

8. Organize a Fun Contest

The University of Florida and Bates College organizes a Favorite-Vegan-Friendly Contest which helps universities offer vegan foods in their cafeterias. These types of contests motivate staff and students to make healthy eating choices, and encourage the  improvement in the overall quality of food that is being service each day. Contests are a great way to engage students and exchange ideas. Perhaps organize a different themed contest each month to keep things fresh.

Similarly, RecycleMania is a “friendly competition and benchmarking tool for college and university recycling programs to promote waste reduction activities to their campus communities. Over an 8-week period each spring, colleges across the United States and Canada report the amount of recycling and trash collected each week and are in turn ranked.” In 2014 the event touched 461 campuses in all 50 states and recycled and composted 86 million pounds of waste! Antioch University in Seattle lead the pack and increased their recycling rate by 10% in one year.

9. Use Greener Cleaning Products

Chemicals in cleaning products used in dining areas can easily leach into the food and can be harmful to dining service employees and the throngs of students who come through your cafeteria everyday. By using chemical-free products, even the air quality in your cafeteria can improve. Look for cleaning products that are non-toxic and biodegradable. Baldwin Wallace University has adopted green cleaning products in all of it’s campus buildings and anticipates savings over $100,000.

10. Monitor Progress and Strive to Improve Each Year

Monitoring allows comparison among  universities encouraging other institutions to follow your ideas and do something similar and similarly, it will give your university a great opportunity to learn from the success other universities. Carleton College hopes to conduct energy audits specifically of their dining halls to be able to compare them in kind. This way similar energy and water saving measures could be implemented at all locations. Additionally, by developing this metric Carleton can revisit their data to assist future upgrade decisions based on cost effectiveness.

I hope you find these ten recommendations useful as you embark on a journey to make your university food service more sustainable. Remember that promoting sustainability starts at the grassroots level. Sustainability education can impact pro-environmental behavioral change and by providing incentives to your students for behavior change, and removing barriers from achieving simple goals, some of these ten recommendations can be easily incorporated in your university’s board mission.

When faculty, staff, and students all make an equal contributions to environmental improvements, your university can achieve an overall environmental and economical win-win solution.

The impact and cost savings can be astounding.