The Sustainability Conundrum
2010 Environmental Study
Figuring out the “why” of sustainability is easy. Many say it’s the right thing to do for our planet and our own wellness. However, the “how” can be much trickier. With so many initiatives falling under the umbrella of “sustainability,” it can be daunting to know where and how to start. Here, FSD takes a look at three major challenges operators face in the name of sustainability. We talked to operators who have faced these challenges and somehow found a way to solve the sustainability puzzle.
CHALLENGE: Sourcing local in schools
Sourcing local produce in schools is often a huge undertaking, mostly because school foodservice operators rarely have time to devote to the research a local produce program involves. That’s where School Food Focus (SFF) comes in. School Food Focus is a national organization dedicated to assisting large school districts—those with more than 40,000 students—achieve wellness goals. When SFF needed a pilot school to test out its methods, Jean Ronnei, director of nutrition and commercial services at 38,500-student Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, jumped at the chance to get more local produce into her cafeterias.
“School Food Focus had a notion that if we could put together large urban districts then we could potentially influence purchasing or the quality of the food products,” Ronnei says. “We had been working with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to make some efforts with local produce but without a lot of luck. Initially SFF was looking to brainstorm with community partners and foodservice operators around the country about how we could transform food. We met twice and talked about what the pro- gram would look like, which ended up being School Food Focus. They needed a pilot school. I had heard David Berkowitz who was director of NYC schools, talk about what they had done [with SFF]and I was really excited about it. We put our name in the hat to be first.”
Getting started: Once Saint Paul was chosen, SFF gave the district $50,000 in seed money and a proj- ect manager. [To read an interview with Saint Paul’s SFF project manager Dorothy Brayley and learn more about SFF, check out Five Questions for: Dorothy Brayley and Toni Liquori on foodservicedi- rector.com.] To get things started, the district created a list of 10 food-related initiatives it would like to see done. It then narrowed that list to four.
“The four we decided on were: reducing the sugar content of our flavored milk; getting whole-wheat hamburger and hot dog buns; purchasing cheaper on-the-bone chicken; and implementing farm to school with local produce,” says Ronnei. “As an example of how School Food Focus works, I want to mention the bread aspect. We ran into a lot of roadblocks. At first Sara Lee, who is providing us with the buns, did not seem interested in changing. I understand why now. To change the way you do business is a huge undertaking. I think that is the best example of why School Food Focus works. This group was able to survey 21 large urban districts to say, ‘OK, what do you want?’ And lo and behold, we all wanted the same thing. That was an eye opener to Sara Lee that there was a tremendous market for what we wanted.”
Once the four areas were decided, Brayley set up site visits to research farms for the produce.
“[SFF] did a lot of the legwork we don’t have time for,” Ronnei says. “They were able to communicate with all the farmers and processors, set up meetings and do a lot of the stuff that we can’t get to. They also had the leverage of a national organization.”
Picking processors: Ronnei says a big challenge was learning how to deal with the processors.
“We had only had luck with apples and had bad experience with other items,” Ronnei says. “Previously, we had tried to work directly with a farmer to bring in pumpkins and all of a sudden we have this disaster on our dock. We had to wash the pumpkins before they went out. We just didn’t know how we’d ever manage to bring in produce into our nutrition center because we aren’t set up to process produce. What ended up happening was a very effective meeting between farmers, our processor and my staff, where we collectively looked at, ‘OK when is produce available from farmers?’ Then we played with the menu and the seasonality and wrote those items into the menus. The next step was for us to de- termine how many pounds of that product we would need, when it would be delivered and how we wanted it processed. So the processor would get the instructions on how we wanted it. For example, we’d tell them we wanted shredded cabbage in 10-pound bags and this was how many bags we expect to use. Then the processor and the farmer could forecast what they needed for us.”
In two months, the district bought 110,000 pounds of local produce that cost about $76,000. That figure includes more than 15 items sourced within a 100‐mile radius—including sweet corn, carrots, potatoes, watermelon, green peppers, cabbage and squash. At the end of the season, SFF went back to the farmers to get feedback about the success of the partnership.
“Relationships are a huge part of this,” Ronnei says. “I know one thing we’ve learned is, the way pro- duce is going to work for any one district is going to depend on those relationships. That’s why it’s excit- ing with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization there is this idea of grants, and that’s really what SFF is—more like a grant. We got some start-up money and some experts and that way we could figure the system out. Now that it’s figured out, we’re on a roll.
“Surprisingly, one of our biggest ‘a ha’ moments was learning that we were getting a lot of local produce and we didn’t know it,” Ronnei says. “It makes sense because the processors are going to want to use less expensive product, and carrots are cheaper coming from Minnesota rather than hauling them from elsewhere. I guess what I would suggest is to start small. Pick off what’s going to be the easiest for you. If you live in Minnesota it may be apples. If you live in Denver it may be peaches. Whatever there is an abundance of is something you should consider putting on your menu, that’s what I would do. Another cool tip we learned in all this was people buying apples in grocery stores want the big apples. So these growers were using the smaller-sized apples for apple juice. We took those smaller apples off the market, which was a real blessing for them. That would be true with other fruits because the smaller size doesn’t go in a grocery store, but its perfect for kids.”
Composting is a sustainability initiative that often depends on location. Many operators say that although they’d like to start composting, there is just nowhere in their area that can handle the operation’s volume. FSD spoke to two operators who managed to overcome the location challenge, which naturally led to other challenges.
Metro West Medical Center: At 240-bed Metro West Medical Center in Massachusetts, which comprises of Framingham Union Hospital, in Framingham, and Leonard Morse Hospital, in Natick, composting grew out of a program developed by Morrison Management Specialists, which manages the hospi- tal’s foodservice, called Trim Trax.
“We were already participating in Morrison’s Trim Trax program, where we take the pre-and post-pro- duction kitchen waste out of the waste stream and track it. At that point we were just disposing of it,” says Ted Flood, director of food and nutrition. “It got to a point where we said we needed to take this to the next level. First, we went to the local farms to see if there would be one that would be willing to take the waste. After that was unsuccessful, we teamed up with a waste removal company that actually uses it for composting.”
Addie Gibson, assistant director of food and nu- trition, says that the Trim Trax program started in April 2009 and the composting began three months later. In the program each production chef or prep person in the kitchen has buckets that they use to measure all their waste. The only waste that is going to composting at this time is pre-and post-production waste. Post-consumer waste is not being collected.
“We’re definitely taking it a step at a time,” Flood says. “When we first introduced Trim Trax, the challenge was just educating our staff on where to put the pre-and post-production waste and the left- overs. Once that took hold, it was relatively easy to put that waste into a composting program. I know we were one of the first acute-care hospitals in the state of Massachusetts to actually compost its waste. It’s a big leap to do post consumer, but we’re looking at every possible angle we can in terms of green initiatives.”
Flood says the department saved money in water and electricity bills by not having to put as much waste down the garbage disposal. They also found savings by looking at the food prepared. For example, if someone is preparing a cantaloupe and not cutting it close enough to the rind then they can police themselves, which also reduces overall waste. Flood says the switch to composting, from a business perspective, had a net reduction in food cost of roughly 4% for the year.
“Trim Trax made it easy,” Gibson says. “They were al- ready measuring the food. It was just getting staff to understand that it all gets thrown in one place as opposed to the garbage. It really was as simple as that. As for what to do with the waste once it was collected, that was a little more difficult. We had to do a little research about who could take this kind of compost. Our first step was to go to the local farms. We thought they could come once a week and pick it up and use it. Unfortunately some of the farms were very limited in what they could accept—no meat trimmings and that sort of thing. We also had a lot of farms in the area that were organic so they couldn’t accept from us either. I think finally someone on our Green Committee came across the hauler we are using now. We gave them a call, had several meetings with them and it worked out. We also ran into problems with starting in the summer. The heat was a problem at first. We had quite a few complaints about the smell and flies. But we moved the containers and by December things got a lot better. I know that we had at least 10 tons of waste that was composted during a three-month period.”
Hallmark Cards: At Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., Christine Rankin, corporate services manager, says implementing her operation’s composting program really began with the business partnership they were able to forge with a local composting center.
“We started by talking to a company called Missouri Organics about our compost and asking them to look at what we had in the beginning,” Rankin says. “They make processed compost and sell it as mulch. They were very interested in having us send them compost. I call it compost, but in the beginning it wasn’t really compost. We have had a pulper in our dish room for years and the pulp from that was very compostable. We sent them some of that pulped material, walked through the process and then three years ago started sending it to them.”
Starting in stages was also helpful, according to Rankin. The department started in one section of the kitchen. Several months later, they expanded to the full kitchen. The department then expanded to its two satellite operations. Now, the department composts waste from all locations. They’ve also been able to compost pre-and post-consumer waste because customers hand staff their trays and the waste is sorted in the dish room for the pulper. As for serviceware, being Hallmark, they are able to do something a little different.
“Our company does produce paper party goods so we use those in our cafeteria,” Rankin says. “We use the leftovers of those products so they don’t go in the landfill. There are often times you are eating off of Shrek or Tinkerbell serviceware, but that stuff can go in the pulper as well so it can be composted. Where we have been challenged is in grab-and-go packaging products because it continues to be double in cost. As interested as we are in switching, it is still cost-prohibitive for us right now.”
Rankin says the composting process wentfairlysmoothly. All they really had to do was reorganize the scheduling of trash pickups.
“The fact that [Missouri Organics] comes to our door to pick it up is great,” Rankin says. “The most difficult part has been the cost. There is an expense involved in having someone come and pick up your compost. There is an expense involved in having someone pick up your trash. However, we have reduced the trash considerably so that is where we have virtually eliminated the cost. Both from the amount of trash we have, which was substantively reduced, but also in that we were able to renegotiate our contract with our trash vendor. So between those two things we’ve gotten close to cost neutral.
The place to start is finding a quality service. If we didn’t have the partnership with Missouri Organics, I can’t imagine it would have worked as well. What was a one day a week pickup in the beginning is now three days a week. The company committed to getting a bigger truck and bigger bins for us. It’s just been a great working partnership. I think that is the key. Last year, we were able to compost 303,000 pounds, which is 150 tons. We feel pretty good about that.”fruits because the smaller size doesn’t go in a grocery store, but its perfect for kids.”
CHALLENGE: Reusables versus Disposables
The debate between disposables and reusable plastic to-go containers is waged at many foodservice operations. In one corner there are eco-friendly disposables, which when disposed of correctly will biodegrade and/or contribute to the compost pile. However, these disposables are often cost- prohibitive for many operations and pose problems with educating guests on where to dispose of them properly. In the other corner, there are plastic reusable to-go containers. These containers save on waste but require cleaning supplies and a system to get them into customers’ hands and then back to be cleaned properly. We spoke to two operators to get the lowdown on these two to-go options.
“I pity the fool that uses disposables!”
Randy Lait, director of dining services at 33,815-student North Carolina State University in Raleigh, recently launched a pro- gram to offer to-go service in the all-you-care-to-eat facilities. When the program was first discussed, there was never any question that the de- partment wouldn’t use a reusable to-go container.
“Setting up the to-go program itself was really the big challenge for us. once we figured out hot to do to go in our residential dining, the decision to use a reusable container was automatic. We never allowed takeout in residential dining before now, but we had people asking for it. So we found ourselves asking, ‘How do you do takeout in an all-you- care-to-eat environment while maintaining control?’ It gets particularly tricky when you have students who have an unlimited meal plan. Does ‘unlimited’ mean it’s all the food they care to eat and all the food they can haul out?
It took some careful planning, but we found a way to offer takeout in our dining halls by using a cash register that accepts a meal equivalency just like we do at the campus cash operations. That gave us the control point that allowed customers to only use takeout once per meal period from the all-you-care-to-eat dining hall. That part is really where we spent a lot of our time. Once it was time to decide what the container was going to be, we went imme- diately to the reusable container—we used it from day one. Everything that we do now, every decision that we make, we have to add on the sustainability aspect of the equation.
We are selling the containers at cost—$3. If a student doesn’t want takeout, they don’t have to pur- chase one. I think you have to charge something for them or else they become a really ex- pensive disposable container. Customers buy the first one, use it, bring it back dirty and trade it for a clean one. If they don’t want to take one right then, we give them a wooden token that they can ex- change for a clean con- tainer later. The feedback has been all positive. We have sold 888 reusable containers so far. We just started offering takeout containers in March of this year. We didn’t go with the compostable disposable containers because if a student was getting takeout, then they wouldn’t be discarding their container in the proper waste bin so it could get composted. Then, those containers would just end up in someone’s trashcan and the compostable aspect would be wasted.
So far I’ve only been through about three or four weeks of this program, but we haven’t had any trouble. It’s surprising to me because I was the biggest doomsday predictor and naysayer of them all. One piece of advice I’d give is to shop around for the best price on these containers. Every time we got a price, it got lower and lower. We started by shopping on- line, then moving to local dealers. I think we cut the cost almost in half by the time we were finished. Honestly, this has been so successful, I pity the fool who uses disposables.”
“This is a process that is never done.”
Rupa Rao, general manager for Restaurant Associates at Hearst Tower in New York City, says Café 57 has offered biodegradable/compostable disposables since the it opened. However, the process continues to evolve.
“We opened the café with all biodegradable disposables. Since the building was the first Gold LEED-certified building in New York City, making sustainable decisions in the
café was important. The clients’ goal was to always be green and sustainable to go with the culture of Hearst, so we wanted to do everything we could from our foodservice point of view.
We started with every dispos- able being biodegradable. When we started, the biggest challenge was availability of the product. Sometimes even now, there is not enough supply so we have to stock up what we use so we don’t run out. Being a part of Compass Group, I know that since we started, many other accounts have gone this route, so the product is more available now. But even now when they make changes, such as now they have the container with the partition, they may have a short supply.
I think a more recent challenge came from our compostable waste hauler. They told us they’d rather only accept the organic food waste and meat trimmings rather than the compostable containers. The compost is sent out to Bridgewater, N.J., and made into fertilizer, and I guess the containers don’t work as well for that. So we ended up changing the cups back to plastic since those could be recycled. Also, in terms of training our staff, it was easier to say food waste goes here and non-food waste goes here. The entrée container is still biodegradable and that just goes in with the non-food waste and biodegrades eventually.
The bigger challenge is trying to get customers to use china. Even if they eat in the café they want their meal in a to-go container. So we did this campaign called ‘Do the Dish’ where we educated our guests about using plates—telling them it is better for the environment, it won’t cost you more, etc. We still offer the disposables and a lot of people still choose them, but I think encouraging china is the next step and that’s a bit of a challenge.
I am also looking into reusable to-go containers. I spoke to some colleagues who are offering them as a promotion where they will sell the container and then the customers will buy it and use it for their own use, which kind of makes sense to me. My whole thing in talking about providing it to everyone and then collecting it and washing it is a concern that our guests might not feel that it’s clean. Even though we wash our china, I think with the plastic and hot food and then running it through the dishwasher, I’m not sure what it will look like at the end. That’s something I want to test and see what the quality of the container is once it goes through the whole process. I also just think that if we did it the other way, where people bought it and just took it with them and used it like a personal coffee mug that probably makes more sense.
This is a process that is never done. It’s always what can we do next? Our guests are so aware and everyone is trying to do what’s sustainable, so as op- erators serving those guests we need to be ahead of the curve. Just coming up with new ideas and having your team work with you and make it their own is so important.”