At Notre Dame, sustainability is more than just ‘miles and carbon’

When it comes to local sourcing and food waste reduction, the university has hit hurdles. Here’s a look at how it’s working to overcome them.
Notre Dame has been locally sourcing ingredients for almost 20 years. / Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Dining services at the University of Notre Dame (ND) puts sustainability top of mind with a variety of local sourcing and food waste reduction initiatives. On the Indiana campus, however, sustainability doesn’t end there.

Instead, being sustainable means being “good stewards of the land,” according to Cheryl Bauer, ND’s supply chain and sustainability director.

“The things that we’re trying to do encompass … using local products, but making sure sustainability isn’t just about miles and carbon,” said Bauer, noting that “it’s about using our resources of humans in a good manner: our employees being taken care of well, whether it’s the factories or on the farms; the type of ingredients being used; the cleanliness of the decks—it’s interesting how over the years, the terminology for sustainability has changed so much.”

Education is also a component of ND’s sustainability efforts.

“The students are here to learn to grow, to be our next leaders, for not only our country but the world,” Bauer said. “And if we say it’s okay not to take care of our planet, who’s gonna tell them and help them understand otherwise?”

Reducing waste

One issue the school has focused on is food waste. Bauer said the team tries to teach students to only take what they can eat when dining at school. 

“It’s changing people’s habits, which, that’s a hurdle,” she said.

One way ND’s dining team attempts to reduce food waste is through high ingredient utilization. ND works with the Leanpath system to log products that are leftover at the end of the day. This allows managers and chefs to determine why the products were left over. The tool sparks a conversation regarding whether the product was overcooked or if it simply didn’t fit with the flavor profile students are looking for.

Another way ND works to reduce food waste is by preventing it in the first place. Bauer said the staff works closely with students to curate a menu that appeals to them.

“It’s also just trying to work with the students on a very close basis, so that they can tell what they are or not looking for so we can adjust those things,” she said. “We can assume that they want to eat Buffalo mac and cheese every day all we want, but if that’s not the case, then it’s being wasted. What is it that they do want?”

Regional constraints have posed a challenge when it comes to reducing food waste. For example, in Northwestern Indiana, there are no locations to compost, according to Bauer. ND has gotten around this by utilizing a system called Grind2Energy, which converts food waste to renewable energy.

“It’s basically your home garbage disposal, but it’s on steroids—you can take tops of pineapples, beef knuckles, ham hocks, and it liquifies it in a matter of seconds,” Bauer said.

The liquified waste then gets brought to a local farm, where it is used to produce energy for the barns.

“More energy than what they can use,” Bauer said. “The solids that come out make fresh bedding for the livestock. And if they ever get more than they need, it’s a perfect plant-starting medium. And all the liquids are captured as well, and that’s used as fertilizer for their fields to go back and feed their cows. There is no waste that comes from that.”

Contending with procurement obstacles

Sourcing local foods has been going on for almost 20 years at ND, Bauer said.

The menu features products purchased within 250 miles of campus, and the school spends nearly $5.6 million on locally sourced products, making up over 38% of its annual purchases.

“Obviously, the first thing you want to lead with on the menu is flavor, you want it to taste good, be something that’s craveable by your recipient,” Bauer said. “But then once you have the plan for that set out and what those items are that you want to bring in, that’s when you start talking about: Can we use a tomato that’s local; can we use beef that comes from one of our adjacent states?”

Local sourcing, however, is not without its challenges.

“Being in Northwestern Indiana, produce is really great the months that the students aren’t here,” she said. “So, we worked with a bunch of our local farmers to make sure that they were able to keep those products that were locally sourced in our mix for us as long as possible, without getting to the point where end-of-season quality became an issue.”

As with most foodservice operations, ND has faced shortages in its supply chain, which has led to challenges with local sourcing.

“Even though things have gotten better this last year, the supply chain is still not perfect. So, we could have had a product partner that fits into the definitions of local or maybe a minority vendor, clean product, but … they aren’t able to send us the product that we want to be able to serve,” Bauer said. “And then we need to either find an alternative to it and then remember to move it back once the outage is corrected, or find a new partner that can hit the metrics that we’re looking to fulfill and have the quality that the students expect.”


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