Six Steps to Sustainability

The University of Colorado-Boulder campus is embracing sustainability at students' behest. To satisfy that demand, Dining Services has been following a six-point plan that includes eliminating waste and offering all-natural foods.

At A Glance: University of Colorado-Boulder

•Management: Amy Beckstrom, assistant director of housing and dining services

•Scope: 5 dining centers, 4 grab-and-go units, 4 c-stores; 28,624 students; 18,000 daily transactions

•Revenue: $21.8 million

•Innovation: 6-step plan to implement and achieve sustainability in foodservice; organic grab-and-go foodds; working with environmental students to make foodservice more environmentally friendly

The socially conscious students of the University of Colorado-Boulder demand that their foodservice program help save the planet, by doing everything from offering all-natural, organic and sustainable foods to all but eliminating trash.

About 6,000 of the university's 28,624 students live on campus, which offers five dining centers, four grab-and-go locations and four c-stores. Together, the nine foodservice outlets record around 18,000 transactions per day. The operation generates annual revenue of about $21.8 million from all dining outlets, according to Amy Beckstrom, assistant director of housing and dining services.

"Being in Boulder, of course, we have a continuing demand from our students for organic, natural and sustainable foods in general," says Beckstrom. "They want us to support the university's sustainability goal."

The dining services department is sticking closely to the university's strategic plan to create an environmentally friendly campus. In line with that initiative, it has taken six major steps during the past year or so in support of sustainability, and plans to continue to build upon them.

Composting: The university has developed a substantial composting program over the last year, according to Beckstrom. Staffers currently collect pre- and post-consumer waste at two of the dining centers, and pre-consumer waste at two others. Compost is then shipped to outside companies for conversion into fertilizer. It's not currently used on campus, but that remains a possibility, Beckstrom says.

"We were finally able to have the dining center support the concept," Beckstrom relates. "You have to have composters in the kitchens and that costs money, of course."  Pulpers will be added to some operations in 2007 in order to cut down on solid waste coming out of the kitchens.

Training: A year ago, the university's environmental center staff made a presentation to dining staff called "Let's Get Down to Earth."  It covered topics like "green" cleaners, recycling and composting, says Beckstrom, "basically getting our department involved by letting us know what the university is doing."

Each year now, the university offers at least one hour of training for all dining staff to update them on the effort in sustainability; defined by the university as "locally grown, organic, natural, zero waste, green chemicals, all of that," says Beckstrom. "This is so they can see it's something that is very important to us. Sustainability updates are now a permanent part of our training program."

Zero Waste: The university held its second annual outdoor tent event in October for all freshmen students that was specially designed to produce no waste whatsoever. Between 4,000 and 5,000 attended.

"We worked very hard with the university's environmental center," Beckstrom recalls. Among the touches the freshmen found: chicken served on sugar-cane skewers, corn-based forks that dissolved after use, and edible cones used in place of plates. Every bit of it was compostable or biodegradable; nothing went to a landfill. The goal was to raise the awareness of the university's culture. "That's why it's called Global Jam," says Beckstrom. "There was also food from various countries."

Grab and go: The university has introduced a new grab-and-go concept called Piazano's that has quickly outstripped all expectations. The first of the four grab-and-go outlets to offer 100% natural, organic fare (when available), it debuted in Jan. 2006 to more than enthusiastic crowds. "It's amazing," says Beckstrom. "We opened the place expecting 500 meals a day, and it is doing over 2,200 meals a day. It's drawing them from all over the place."

The outlet, located on the university's main campus in the Cheyenne Arapahoe Dining Center, is primarily for meal-plan students who pay by card swipe. Credit cards are also accepted. The outlet is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students entering the outlet pick up a biodegradable plastic bag bearing the university's logo and make their selections.

"When people say, 'How can you afford to serve organic food?' I tell them we've changed the meal structure: one entree and two sides per location, including a beverage," Beckstrom explains. "We have found that students have no problem with that. It's providing them with the selections they're asking for in terms of natural and organic items. It' hard to find organic products, so right now we're running with about 40% of our items there organic."

Each day's menu features four entree selections, including sub sandwiches like Italian and natural turkey with natural bacon, and vegan hummus and crackers. Garden, Chef and Greek salads are made with all-organic lettuce. A favorite menu item is an all-natural pizza with an organic crust. There is also a daily sandwich special."Our chef is usually pretty creative with that," says Beckstrom. "It's usually something pretty unique and different."

There is also a line of organic soups and a large variety of organic beverages. "We may be the biggest seller of some brands in the state," says Beckstrom. One of the top brands is Izze, a locally produced, carbonated natural beverage made with a blend of fruit juices. Snacks include Paul Newman's Organic Chocolate Bars, natural crackers and cookies, and an entire shelf of organic fruits. And, french fries are now trans-fat free.

The institution is also switching to compostable and/or recyclable grab-and-go food packaging. "One of the drawbacks of these incredibly popular grab-and-go (concepts) is the increase in trash," Beckstrom says. "It is such an issue for our students. They are very active in making sure that we are identifying pollution. In other words, they are reaching out to us and saying, 'We love these options, but we need to work together on a plan' and that's where the community effort is. They're putting a lot of pressure on us."

Chemicals: Housing and Dining Services has switched to a supplier that can provide more environmentally friendly packaging and a greater number of Green Seal or equivalent products.  "The dishwashing chemicals we were getting from our former company were diluted and delivered in five-gallon drums," Beckstrom notes, "which meant a high amount of trash waste. They have been replaced with small capsules that are more environmentally friendly."

Dining Services is in the process of converting to as many Green Seal products as possible. "The challenge with that, of course," says Beckstrom "is that you have employees who either prefer or are used to a different item, so it is a process. We're trying to define what our campus wants when they say they want 'Green Seal' products, and (the new supplier) is doing everything it can to make sure its specifications meet that."

Research and outreach: Reaching consensus on definitions isn't easy. "When you're trying to develop a strong sustainability program there are so many loose definitions," Beckstrom laments. "For instance, what's sustainable? What's organic? What's natural? What can we do, and what do our students expect us to do? What can (industry) help us with?"

To get those answers, dining services goes to the "true" experts: University of Colorado students. "For a couple of years now we have had a real good relationship with the students in an environmental class," says Beckstrom. "Each year this class researches and makes recommendations for dining services. I've seen the presentations for the past two years. They are very thoroughly researched on what we do."

The department is working with those students to define sustainable options and their importance to students' agendas. Last year, the students came up with a "the good, the bad and the ugly list for fish," Beckstrom recalls. "They also listed the fish items they want to see that support sustainability, and worked with our executive chef. A lot of their research has been very instrumental in the development of what we're doing (in terms of menu development)."

The university is also planning on switching all of its beef products to all-natural beef. Admittedly, cost is an issue. "We're finding that, again, it's expensive," Beckstrom confides. "We calculated that the switch would be another $80,000 per year, but we are committed to making these changes."

Dining Services has already committed to an increase in its $25 million annual food budget of $60,000 in order to offer more organic and natural food choices, she adds.

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