Taking the LEED

A growing number of noncommercial foodservice operators are participating in LEED certification. Operators speak about how others can join the movement.

Poor Kermit. When this loveable Muppet frog was created by Jim Henson in 1959, he was lonely and mournfully lamented his situation. We empathized and understood "it isn't easy being green."

Today, almost five decades later, operators in all sectors, from schools and colleges to healthcare and corporate locations, are "going green" in ever increasing numbers. Certainly, they're not lonely in their effort to be good citizens of the planet and conserve as much of our natural resources as possible. Like Kermit, though, you may find it's not easy being green, "at least at the outset," especially if your facility is working toward LEED certification.

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System has become the nationally accepted standard for green buildings, and was developed by the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council. There are four levels of certification, based on points that a facility "scores" in meeting LEED components: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum, the highest. Noncommercial operations from New York to Virginia to Colorado to California are taking the council's standards to heart and embracing a "green" way of life.

Gold for Hearst: In the third floor atrium of the new Gold LEED-certified Hearst Tower in New York, employees can dine in the modern white marble-floored Cafe57, the 350-seat cafe operated by Restaurant Associates (see Jan. 15, 2007, FSD, p. 54).

Many of the menu ingredients are locally raised, and a high percentage are organic, including grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef from the Hearst Ranch in California. In the seating area, the soaring, glass-enclosed space not only offers a huge expanse of natural light, but the atrium is kept cool by an Ice Fall; a sustainable art fixture which utilizes recycled rainwater.

This mid-town oasis, which opened last May, is the city's newest jewel, and Charles LaMonica, RA's senior vice president of operations, couldn't be more pleased. "Hearst Tower is the city's first Gold LEED-certified building and our client, Brian Schwagerl, is extremely proud and knowledgeable," LaMonica reports. "He's been the advocate within the Hearst organization in pursuing and achieving this LEED certification."

In addition to the wide array of sustainably raised or grown menu offerings, LaMonica points to the cafe's use of biodegradable, naturally based and fully compostable cold drink cups and lids created from resin produced by isolating the starch in corn kernels. Cafe57 also uses biodegradable hot food containers made of tasteless and health-conscious natural fiber such as sugar cane fiber.

These recyclables are available as to-go options, but primary service is on china, notes fsd Julie Sajda. "We've trained our line attendants to assume that visitors are staying," she says. "They automatically get permanent ware. But if they take out disposables, we have recycle bins up on the pantries for plastic, paper and wet garbage. The product we use is a bit higher cost, but we stay in line. Of the approximately 1,100 daily covers, more than half eat in."

LaMonica admits that costs of these particular biodegradable products are higher since they're not mainstream. "They're still in limited supply so you pay a premium for them," he concedes. "Hearst is looking for a leadership role in that they will lead the way in making (sustainable) practices mainstream."

Energy Star premium: Back and front of the house, foodservice consultant Ira Beer of Beer Associates in Lynbrook, NY, worked with the Hearst team and Restaurant Associates from the embryonic stage of the project through completion. Beer is quick to point out that not every piece of foodservice equipment fits the green profile.

"We tried to maximize the equipment we had control of," Beer says. "Another company oversaw where a substitution to fit the green profile could be made. For example, all reach-in refrigeration equipment had (the Environmental Protection Agency's) Energy Star rating for electrical consumption. Overall, we have two criteria when we specify equipment: one, that it be energy efficient; and two, we look at functionality. So if it's energy efficient but very slow, we might choose faster equipment. But when judged for 'green,' you have to show that it has the Energy Star rating."

In specifying commercial dishwashers, Beer chose units with insulated tanks to retain heat. "Since tanks are thermostatically controlled, if the insulation retains the heat it doesn't require additional heat to retain power," he explains. "Because it doesn't have a rating, the LEED consultant can explain this when applying for LEED (certification)."

Beer further notes that insulating tanks in dishwashing machines are expensive and, although not a unique accessory, they are becoming a desirable feature in a green building. Such insulation is sometimes used to reduce noise, but at Hearst it was done primarily for energy conservation.

Recycling focus: Since green buildings are known for recycling, Beer specified pulping equipment to pulp garbage in the dishwashing operation, a procedure that reduces garbage by a factor of five-to-one. "It could be used for compost, but it also takes up less space in the landfill," he explains.

"Also, especially on conveyor-type dishwashing machines, they just keep running and running, pumping water and soap in an empty machine. We have sensors that will automatically shut down the machine, and that also accrues to the LEED rating."

Fossil's Silver: But skyscrapers in big cities aren't the only places pursuing LEED. certification. Fossil Ridge High School, part of Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Col., is certified Silver.

It opened in August 2004, and received LEED certification for new construction in July 2005. At the time, there were no LEED for Schools parameters established. The school has an open campus policy and serves about 600 of the 975 students enrolled.

"My predecessor had planned the kitchen and we have a really good planning, design and construction department that worked on getting that certification" says Christine Rock, foodservice director. "District-wide, we've focused on recycling and recently have more recycling stuff than trash."

Fossil Ridge collaborated with Front Range Community College on the project, and there are two kitchens in the building with some opportunity for shared equipment. "The biggest savings is in heating and ventilation," notes Stu Reeve, energy manager for Poudre. "Kitchen design is often looked at as a separate entity, but with the LEED philosophy, kitchen design is brought in early and you're looking at its impact on the whole building, making lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems really come together."

Reeve and the team designed the building in 2002, and all equipment used was the most energy-efficient available at the time, but he notes that the process pre-dates the EPA Energy Star label that is now more readily available. Rock points out that hot water use in the kitchen is a huge energy conservation area at Fossil Ridge. "We upgraded the booster heaters that raise the temperature of the water that goes to the dishwasher to 150°F, and rinses at more than 180°F," she explains.

Elsewhere in Colorado, a state that has put a premium on building green, Foothills Hospital, part of Boulder Community Hospital in Boulder, has also earned its certified LEED Silver rating. Opened in 2003, this 53-bed facility (designed to eventually accommodate more than 200 patients,) was the first hospital to earn the Silver rating, having gone through the LEED process before the Green Building Council had detailed it for hospitals.

Square peg: "We were trying to put a square peg in a round hole, but we did our best," says environmental coordinator Kai Abelkis. "The whole hospital was involved. We looked at indoor air quality, recycling of all construction waste, and material to be purchased that was made close to our community. And we tried to minimize energy use. The fact that we built a green hospital, that whole effort laid the foundation for us to get into the spirit."

In foodservice, where Aramark's FSD Glenda Hughes supports the green effort and provides the necessary staff education, recycling efforts now include the collection of food waste for a compost program. (It's picked up by an outside company to be commercially composted.) Chinaware is used primarily and there's a five-cent charge (a penalty of sorts) for to-go boxes.

But does it work? "Our dishwasher is saving energy and water, but it's important to purchase one that also works, that's what LEED is all about," Abelkis contends. "In foodservice, if it's cost-effective, seamless, not cumbersome and works within the day-to-day operation of the kitchen, then they (i.e., the Aramark team) are glad to take it on. We also hired an architectural firm to do our dining room with low (volatile organic compounds) material for healthier air."

"The real success is that working toward LEED certification has captured the imagination of people here," he adds. "Now the're asking, 'What else can we do to make our footprint lighter?'"

The Heilman Center, housing a dining hall, food and auxiliary-related offices, and a post office on the University of Richmond (Va.) campus, opened in August 2006. It's the second renovation on campus that is eligible for LEED certification but the only one with foodservice, notes Dee Hardy, director of dining services. LEED parameters have been targeted in this project, which entailed the construction of a new building onto an older building for an addition of 20,000 square feet.

Reaching for Star: "We did Energy Star rated refrigeration equipment and (Energy Star) in as many other items as we could," Hardy reports. "In the dining facility, we used low emanating materials (i.e., low VOC), and in cleaning and storage areas we have separate ventilation and pluming systems. Plus, we installed sky lights, to cut down on energy use, and pulpers."

On balance, she sees these foodservice-related energy efficiencies, perhaps prompted by the goal of earning LEED certification for the building, as an ongoing commitment. "You have to be able to manage your support systems," she contends. "You have to have a pulper, but if no one is using it, it doesn't help you. You have to manage implementation and education so people understand what you're trying to accomplish and buy into it."

Currently, only 48 higher education projects are LEED-certified, but that doesn't mean that other locations haven't worked hard to be green, as Shawn LaPean, director of Cal Dining at UC-Berkeley, points out. "At public institutions, pursuing LEED certification is an expensive program and very much 'value engineered.' Some bells and whistles are dropped from the project to save money," he says.

Instead of seeking LEED certification, LaPean chose to be part of the Bay Area Green Business Program, which includes operations in nearby counties. By the end of this semester, he expects that by "working with the county and going unit by unit," all of his four dining halls and seven retail operations will be green-certified.

To his mind, LEED is more about how you build it, whereas he sees the Green Business Program as being more about how you operate it after you open with respect to energy and waste conservation, using chemicals that don't harm the environment, and aggressive recycling. In his operation that equates to about 70 tons of food waste annually headed for composting.

Cost prohibitive: "We call ourselves a 'green restaurant' once we get green-certified, and we're the only buildings on campus certified as Green Business, although we do have two residence halls that are LEED-certified," LaPean points out. "We audit how much energy we use for the dishroom machine on a monthly basis, cost per meal. Last year we were down $2.47 per meal, food, labor and utility expenses, on over two million meals. Out of that, about 36¢ per meal was resource conservation."

"We're audited once a year by the Green Business Program to make sure we haven't changed anything," he continues. "We definitely do meet some categories of LEED, but my budget was $5 million, we were keeping the main kitchen intact and only renovating the front of the house. We're self-supporting and have to fund everything ourselves. Everyone would love to do LEED, but the price tag was just too high. I definitely remember that Excel spreadsheet with 450 line items from LEED for our historic renovation."

Clearly, green is the color to be and LEED certification is growing in recognition as the most respected route to get there. It's still "not easy being green," but those who have gotten there say it's worth the trip.