Harvard Strives to Set Standards in Green Catering

Sustainability has infiltrated every aspect of dining services departments and catering is no different, according to many operators. At 21,000-student Harvard University the dining department’s Crimson Catering has been focused on green initiatives for years. “We’ve been [focusing on] sustainability for a long time for the department as a whole,” says Crista Martin, director of marketing and communications for Harvard University Dining Services. “In catering we’ve done recycling for many years. However, as the topic has been growing in people’s minds, the range of [initiatives] that we do in catering has been growing and changing.” CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Sustainability has infiltrated every aspect of dining services departments and catering is no different, according to many operators. At 21,000-student Harvard University the dining department’s Crimson Catering has been focused on green initiatives for years.

“We’ve been [focusing on] sustainability for a long time for the department as a whole,” says Crista Martin, director of marketing and communications for Harvard University Dining Services. “In catering we’ve done recycling for many years. However, as the topic has been growing in people’s minds, the range of [initiatives] that we do in catering has been growing and changing.”

The list of green catering practices Crimson Catering has implemented includes the standards of sourcing as much local/organic food as possible; offering sustainable fish, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken on request; composting all food scraps and coffee grounds; using compostable or recyclable serviceware; recycling cardboard, metals, paper and plastics; maintaining sustainable office and kitchen spaces by using motion-sensored lighting, LED fixtures, green cleaning products, recycled paper products in bathrooms and composting kitchen scraps; and donating salvageable food to the Boston Food Bank. The department also has implemented green practices that aren’t as common in catering such as offering 5-gallon water bubblers and compostable cups as an alternative to individual bottled water; providing bulk servings of typical single-serving packages such as sugars, coffee creamers, etc.; reusing buffet décor for most events; sourcing event equipment rentals, staffing, flowers, etc. from local sources; and offering the option of zero waste events. David Rand, director of Crimson Catering, says these kinds of steps are especially important in catering.

“I think in any high-volume catering operation these things are important because [catering produces] a major impact,” Rand says. “If you are doing $5 million worth of catering and you are serving 85,000 people in a given year, that’s a lot of product [that has the potential for waste]. We have recycling and composting receptacles at every event. The staff is trained during preservice as to which products go in which container so they can help customers take part. Customers are requesting [these sustainability initiatives] because people want to be a part of the process. It’s not as difficult a sell as some people might [think].”

Martin adds that Harvard’s reputation means the department wants to make sure they are on the cutting edge of these practices.

“What [Harvard] is doing is, in some cases, viewed by the world,” Martin says. “Universities around the country are making commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases, that’s a focus on energy specifically, but [we’ve recognized that] people want to play a part in [reducing their impact] in more tangible ways. Food and the way we treat our waste is one of those ways.”

David Davidson, managing director of Harvard Dining Services, says the efforts in catering establish consistency with the departmentwide sustainability initiatives.

“All of our retail cafés are using all-compostable wares,” Davidson says. “Our customers are in some cases the same in catering as they are in the retail units. People are used to seeing [composting and recycling bins] in one place or the other. Having this overarching plan [is allowing customers] to get used it.”

Challenges: Rand says these practices have become second nature to the department so there aren’t many challenges, but one he does mention comes into play when training new staff members on what is waste, what is recyclable and what is compostable. Davidson adds that the catering team is committed to training the customers on the distinction as well.

“By implementing these initiatives in multiple operations, people are getting used to [sorting their waste]. You can do an event with all-compostable wares, but at the end of the event if the people who were there aren’t sorting it correctly then the whole thing is for naught,” Davidson says. “The education piece is really crucial. We’ve played with how the receptacles are labeled to try and help with that. We used to have the actual item fixed on a board above the bin so people could see which product goes in what bin. Now we have a poster with a picture of the item but honestly displaying the actual item worked better. At larger events, where there are recycling and composting stations, we actually have to have those stations manned by a human being in order to direct things. Zero-waste events are made possible because we have teams of employees at various stations working with our guests to make sure the product is going into the right place.”

Though the catering team doesn’t have any concrete numbers on how much waste they’ve been able to save by implementing these initiatives, Rand says all one need to do is look at the university’s commencement/reunion week to see what kind of impact these changes have made.

“I don’t have the number of bottles of water we’ve saved by offering those water stations, but the last couple of years the bag lunch program in Harvard Yard hosts about 10,000 people. If everyone previously had one bottled beverage, now that’s 10,000 people who no longer have a bottle of water.”

Rand thinks reaching out to local vendors is an important step in setting up a green catering department

“Make sure you know who all the local vendors in your area are so they can supply all the products that you need,” Rand says. “If you use a larger vendor you need to make sure that vendor is getting as much local product as possible. The vendors might not even know where some of their products are coming from.”