Students may be campus dining's best ambassadors in sustainability

As college and university dining programs grapple with the question of how to be more sustainable, their own diners may help them get the message across.
Illstration by Midjourney and Nico Heins

What’s driving sustainability at college dining programs? For some operations, it’s the diners themselves. Well, at least, diners are one of the major drivers of sustainable dining, according to Beth Emery, director of dining services at Boston College (BC).

As is the case in most college communities, many students at BC are very involved in advocating and making their voices heard on topics like social justice and the environment. There are about eight different student sustainability groups on campus, and each focus on different areas of sustainability, such as purchasing, waste and other avenues. About six years ago, BC Dining started a Sustainability Action Committee in an effort to bring the various groups together. Since then, the student government has taken over the committee, but BC Dining remains active and still attends the meetings.

In addition to student sustainability groups, the dining team also works with six student sustainability interns and a student manager.

“[Working with student interns] really just charges me up, gives me good ideas," Emery says, noting that working with the student interns is her favorite part of the job. "It gives me the opportunity to hear what the pulse is on campus, what students are saying. And they're just kind of like our ambassadors. They are always trying to help us make the program better."

And, Emery says, while these student groups obviously don’t represent the opinions of every student at BC, they work as a small vocal group that is passionate about driving environmental change.

“So, there are some students that are really interested in it and involved and active and then there are some that aren't," she says. "And so, we see it as part of our job to try to educate them, give them options."

Sustainability continues to be a hot topic throughout the foodservice industry as more and more players consider the environmental impact that comes along with serving food. In FoodService Director’s annual State of C&U survey, we asked our readers to consider trends in sustainability in college foodservice to get an understanding of the environmental issues impacting the industry today. We also explore the way in which operators and other foodservice players are addressing such issues. The results showcase that sustainability is a definitely a consideration for the college dining programs surveyed, as only 5.26% of respondents said that sustainability is not an area of focus at the time.

Here's a look at some of the trends we uncovered and how those trends are coming alive in college foodservice.

Waste takes center stage

Waste, particularly food waste, is a hot topic throughout the foodservice industry at large. And for good reason. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each year, U.S. food loss and waste embodies 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Reducing your operation's food waste is a great way to cut back on carbon emissions associated with the food served. FSD's survey shows that food waste appears to be a hot-button issue under the larger umbrella of sustainability for college and universities, with 89.5% of respondents reporting it's a focus area for them.

In 2018, Compass Group started Stop Food Waste Day, an annual day of education and action surrounding reducing food waste. Now the day is celebrated globally by all sectors. In the college and university sector, Chartwells Higher Education hosted weeklong activities including a campus wide-Farmers Market. The University of Nevada at Reno celebrated a food waste competition between students and staff.

Emery has noticed that food waste has is becoming a bigger and bigger focus in college and university foodservice recently. She says BC dining has made strides in reducing both food waste as well as packaging waste. She noted that BC doesn’t produce as much waste as many other colleges and universities because it is a retail campus.

“We don't have the post-consumer waste that you have as much as you have in an all-you-care-to-eat program,” she says.

 The team also offers reusable plates and ware when students are dining in, and has launched a reusable to-go container program.

“You can look at it as food waste, and then you can look at packaging waste," Emery adds. "Because we're a retail campus, students have the opportunity to take items to go. So, we're doing everything we can to try to get them to use reusable takeout containers.”

As is common with many reusable container programs, there were some challenges associated with launching it. But as the team put more effort into marketing the program, students began to respond positively. One change that Emery says has had an impact is offering a 10% discount when dining with a reusable to-go container. BC Dining Services also teamed up with the student government to put some momentum behind the program. And as a result of these efforts, BC Dining Services effectively doubled the amount of uses from last year to this year.

“We still have more opportunity to get more people to use it because we're retail, there's a lot to go. And we'd like to decrease the amount of trash that's been generated,” she says.

To monitor and digitize food waste data, BC Dining uses a program called Leanpath, which helps the dining team to track and reduce the amount of back-of-house waste. In addition, training and education is a huge component of the college’s food waste approach.

“We have rotated among different locations and done a fair bit of training and education about food waste in our team meetings,” Emery says.

Plant-based isn’t going anywhere

 A major effort to increase plant-based options was another big trend showcased in our State of C&U survey, with 73.7% of respondents indicating that offering plant-based options is a consideration for their operation.

Major foodservice provider Sodexo recently increased its plant-based offerings on college campuses with the launch of its DefaultVeg initiative at nearly 400 college campuses.

Emery predicts that plant-forward fare will continue to be a trend both at BC and within the industry as a whole, moving forward.

“There seems to be more students choosing the plant-forward options than ever before. So, I do think that that's going to grow,” she says.

One way the trend has come to life at BC is educating diners about plant-forward ingredients, like kelp. Last month, the college held a kelp culinary competition on campus. Each dining location was responsible for coming up with their own dish, and a panel of judges including students, professors and staff judged the recipes. The winning recipe, which was a tofu mushroom-kelp Wellington, will make it onto the menu next year.

Thinking about purchasing

Another factor to sustainable dining that may be a little less obvious is purchasing. Many colleges and universities like BC incorporate locally grown food onto their menus, which cuts down on carbon emissions associated with transportation. 57.9% of survey respondents report that local sourcing is a consideration for them currently. Several respondents indicated that local sourcing and establishing a campus garden are something they are considering moving forward.

Emery says that in addition to local sourcing, identifying more minority- and women-owned business to source from is another goal of BC Dining. Emery and her team work with an incubator kitchen in the Boston area called Commonwealth Kitchen. And through that partnership, the team has helped small local business try out a new audience.

“We go to a lot of those local food shows to try to look for new things that might make sense. Certainly, like the kelp meatballs is, is a local vendor and we're supporting, you know, the regional economy,” she says.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln also has a robust local purchasing program: “Nebraska. Local.” The program aims to cultivate partnerships with local agricultural producers to source product and meat for dining halls, according to Technomic’s, FoodService Director’s sister publication, 2023 Beyond Restaurant Insights- College & University insights. As a part of the program, the dining team served locally sourced Nebraska meat, which was raised just 30 minutes from campus.

Working through challenges

As college and universities continue to further their sustainability goals, there are a myriad of challenges that are bound to pop up. Notably, is the cost of being sustainable. Emery says that cost has proven to be a challenge when it comes to local sourcing.

“Some of the things that you'd like to purchase you might not be able to afford,” she says.

 In addition, depending on the location of the operation, there is weather to think about. It may be impossible to source certain products, depending on the time of year.

“So, if you're trying to get regional products, you might have to go hydroponics and then they might be more expensive,” Emery says.

Another challenge, particularly for college and universities, is around education and creating the sustainability message in a way that resonates with diners. Students at colleges and universities typically turnover in about four years, which means the foodservice staff is always educating new diners.

“So, you're always educating students and trying to build relationships with them so that you can collaborate on some of these projects, and they look at you as a partner, and somebody that really wants to improve in that area," Emery says.

That partnership idea has worked to get the sustainability message across by relying on students to reach students. Oftentimes when the dining team presents in front of classes, Emery will opt to have a student take the lead.

“I usually prefer that a student's doing the presentation instead of me because I feel like peer to peer is more effective,” she says.

The team has also found success in tabling events and leaning into social media.

“They [sustainability interns] have 'Sustainable Sundays,' where they share facts on our social media and they'll do a reel--we've been trying to work hard on the reels-- to get more people to do the Green to Go which is our reusable container program,” Emery says.




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