Keeping Sustainability Sustainable

By Paul King, Editorial Director

With the concept of sustainability well into its second decade, a number of operators have found that their programs have begun to stagnate. There may be one or more reasons: customers and staff may be losing interest, the financial aspect of maintaining such efforts have begun to weigh on the department, or operators simply believe they’ve taken the program as far as it can go.

But not all foodservice operations have hit a wall or reached a plateau with their environmental programs. These operators have found ways to keep their programs vibrant and relevant, and their advice can help others get sustainability back on track.

1. Take your program in a different direction.

In the Burlington (Vt.) School District, Foodservice Director Doug Davis turned to another local product—beef—when it seemed his efforts to bring local produce into schools had reached its peak.

“We may very well have maxed out the butternut squash and lettuce and peppers in our operations, so how could we move forward to an item that is less dependent on seasonality, especially one that generates extra revenue for our farms and our community,” Davis says he asked his staff. “For us the target has always been protein. In March, we were able to start getting local beef into our schools.”

Davis admits that he experienced some frustration early on in the process trying to get cattle farms to sell their beef to the district.

“As it turns out, we were trying to go about it the wrong way,” he says. “I visited [the owner of] a small local slaughterhouse and told him what I wanted to do and the price point I needed. He said if he could, out of those animals, keep some of the prime cuts, the hide, the bones and other items he could move in different markets, he could meet my price. And since he had a series of farms he already works with, he could act as a kind of cooperative to fill my orders.”

Davis ordered 2,100 pounds of beef, which was shipped to a local processor to be ground into beef for meatballs.

“The reason that the program has succeeded is that two years ago, when I believed the program would one day work, I approached my processor, who was making my meatballs, and said, ‘what if I sent you all my commodity raw ground beef. Could you make me taco meat, meatballs and beef crumble?’ He said yes. So when I found my slaughterhouse guy, the system was already in place.”

This year, Davis used his commodity beef for taco meat and beef crumble. Next year, he says, when he has committed to buying 10,000 pounds of local beef, he will refuse the commodity beef and put that money into other commodity items.

2. Document your efforts—and publicize them.

At Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, a composting program is diverting more than 300 tons of food waste from local landfills to a compost pile that is creating fertilizer for the University and other users, and generating positive publicity for Dining Services. Dining Services’ composting program began in January 2009 when the first load of compost was picked up from Southgate Food Processing Center, which generates about 2.5 tons of waste per week.

In fall 2009, composting programs were established at Personal Touch Catering and Owens Food Court, saving seven tons of waste in the first month. In 2010, D2—a resident dining hall—began composting and saved 13 tons of waste in its first month. The efforts of these facilities helped divert more than 300 tons of waste from being sent to a landfill in 2010.

“When looking at how much dining is composting compared to two years ago, one may think that we’re wasting more, but we have increased our diversion rate, meaning that we’ve kept more organic food waste out of the landfill than ever before,” said Dining Services’ Sustainability Coordinator Elena Dulys-Nusbaum in an article on the university’s Web site and disseminated to the media. “At the same time, we are working to reduce waste at our venues, using waste tracking. We’re reducing our waste by producing the right amount, and recycling what we can’t save by turning it into fertile soil for use by local food producers, including our Dining Services garden.”

3. Learn as much as you can about your products and communicate that to customers.

Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, parent company for Parkhurst Dining Services, has learned—happily—that things are not always what they seem.

“We had a university student who was really pushing us toward using fair trade coffee,” Moore relates. “Now, I certainly am in favor of fair trade. However, we were not purchasing coffee that is fair trade certified. So I went to Costa Rica last year, to the plantation where we get our coffee. My question to them was, ‘why aren’t you fair trade?’

“It turns out that the plantation was doing everything they were supposed to do, and then taking it to a new level to where they could almost be considered fair trade and Rainforest Alliance certified,” Moore says. “They were doing as much, if not more, than some other farms that actually are certified. They just didn’t bother to go through the certification. A lot of folks see fair trade certification as just a marketing tool. So, because of my visit I was able to provide a sense of reassurance to customers that we do know the source of our coffee, and knowing that trumps the certification tag.”