Building a path toward sustainability

Education foodservice directors respond to consumers with a growing appetite for responsible food choices.
Heads of lettuce adorned with graduation caps

There’s no clear definition of “sustainable” or “clean.” When diners are asked what it means, the answers vary widely. But education foodservice directors can’t ignore the topic, as more and more consumers consider the better-for-you impact of what and where they eat.

For most people, sustainable and clean center around two areas: environment and wellness. Those two areas, however, open up a wide range of possibilities: Local sourcing. Land use. Sustainable fishing. No artificial flavors, colors or genetically modified organisms. Animal welfare. Fair trade. The list goes on. 

At the University of Notre Dame, Associate Director of Sourcing and Sustainability Cheryl Bauer calls it “a moving target, one we’re always learning about.” Echoing those thoughts is Steve Mangan, University of Michigan’s Senior Director of Dining. 

Both admit there’s no menu that can satisfy all needs for all diners. When there are thousands of people to feed, a general view comes first. “In the broadest sense, sustainability falls in the center of planet, people and money,” Mangan says. “How do we protect the planet? How do we protect the people who produce, transport, serve and consume the food? How do we maintain our financial viability.”

Learning at every level

Satisfying those areas takes an education—for both the operation and the students. 

First, Mangan notes, it helps to understand what motivates diners. Some are seeking better health or better academic or athletic performance. Others are experimenting with lifestyle choices, such as vegan or local eating. Still others focus on ethics, like animal welfare.

Second, it’s vital to explain your position. Bauer tells of two students doing a study of land and water use in cattle farming who questioned how much beef Notre Dame bought and served. “They were shocked at the total poundage, but we had to educate them about how it’s used for campus dining, catering, conferences and special events—people ask for it, so we need to have it.”

Large-scale service—10,500 campus dining meals a day at Notre Dame and 25,000 at Michigan—makes it hard to satisfy every issue that matters to diners. It’s equally hard to measure up to sustainability yardsticks the schools set for themselves. 

For example, Mangan says U-M’s dairy comes from a farmer-owned cooperative, is hormone-free and locally produced, but still fails the sustainability test. “The cows are fed in large feeding operations and they would need to be grass-fed and organic to count toward our measurements,” he points out. “It checks a lot of boxes, but not all.”

Making their missions known

Both schools are serious about sustainability, and their websites communicate their missions:

At Notre Dame, the university launched a five-year action plan in 2016 that focuses on six areas: 1] energy and emissions; 2] water; 3] building and construction; 4] waste; 5] procurement, licensing and food sourcing (sustainable and local); 6] education, research and community outreach.

At U-M, the foodservice team works with the school’s Planet Blue program, which has set 2025 campus sustainability goals in the areas of climate, waste prevention, healthy environments and community engagement.  They have a goal of 20 percent of their food purchases to be from local and sustainable resources.

For Notre Dame, the move toward sustainability began quickly when the school’s Executive Chef Don Miller was the first to make Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) practices part of its foodservice program. MSC promotes sustainability by assuring fish is responsibly caught and can be traced to its source. Since then, the school’s Modern Market, a franchise of the foodservice operation, focuses on selling clean label, non-GMO, preservative-free food products. And recently the North Dining Hall on campus was Green Restaurant Certified after a remodeling project that included adding energy- and water-saving equipment, low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint and a menu analysis.

U-M is working toward sustainability by using the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) program called STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System). At the same time, it’s shaping its local footprint—buying products where possible anywhere in Michigan or in a 250-mile radius around Ann Arbor. This encompasses parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Canada. 

“But that’s not necessarily sustainability, that’s building local and economic relationships,” Mangan says. “Things like Fair Trade, organic, sustainable land and water stewardship will trump the local definition, and right now we’re at about 18 percent sustainability using the strict AASHE definition.”

Making a local connection

Sustainability and local buying also have a place in K-12 foodservice. The Ohio Days program used by schools around Columbus is changing the way students think about their food. One day each month, Bexley City Schools, Upper Arlington Schools and Columbus City Schools serve products either made or grown in Ohio.

This challenges the schools to find a fruit, vegetable, milk, grain and meat/meat alternate from within Ohio’s borders. Finding milk locally is easy. Fruits and vegetables present seasonal challenges. The rest is all about creativity.

At Bexley, Foodservice Director Julianna Carvi worked with the Gordon Food Service NearBuy program to create a chicken taco salad as an introductory meal. She used tortillas from a Columbus manufacturer, chicken from a Fremont farm and veggies sourced from a Granville farm.

Since then, she has served ground beef enchiladas, garlic Parmesan roasted butternut squash and even calzones all made with Ohio ingredients or by Ohio companies. And the reception has been great. “The older kids think it’s cool, because they seem to be tapped into the ‘local is better’ feeling,” Carvi says. “I’ve had students and teachers come through the line and ask for the Ohio meal, and my staff is really into it.”

The advice Carvi gives to schools considering a local program: start small. Try just one product or one meal a semester at first, then add more elements as you learn to work with local growers, suppliers and your foodservice distributor. “Most of all, keep in mind student appetites,” she urges. “Sauerkraut may be locally available, but if kids don’t eat it, it’s not food … it’s waste.”

Sustainability going forward

Student awareness is shaping the future. The drive to live purposefully is delivered by health advocates, news outlets and social media every day. The response has been programs like Ohio Days and large-scale efforts like those at Notre Dame and U-M. Getting the word out comes down to marketing your story.

“What does AASHE, STARS or MSC mean to anybody?” Mangan asks. “Unless you’re paying attention to the industry it can be very confusing, so we need to make our actions and goals clear.”

One way it’s coming to life at U-M is through a Global Chef Program. Chefs from around the world are coming to campus to expose students to authentic ethnic foods and help the foodservice staff strengthen its international cuisine. The result could be a change in the way people eat, and Mangan is ready to tell about it.

“If we teach students to enjoy more plant-based foods like a Chinese entrée with vegetables and two ounces of chicken instead of a whole breast, then we need to communicate how that benefits animal-based food consumption and still tastes delicious.”

Making Transparency Easier

The Clear Choice Program from Gordon Food Service can help operators become more transparent with their customers. It identifies products and describes their attributes in six categories:

  • Cleaner ingredients
  • Specialty agriculture
  • Animal care
  • Sustainable seafood
  • Ethically sourced
  • Environmentally friendly 

The Clear Choice program allows customers to utilize our Online Ordering system to find and select from thousands of products across these six categories of claims and third-party certifications. Talk with your Sales Representative for more information.

9 out of 10 – Top dining trends involve healthful, simple and sustainable choices.
Source: National Restaurant Association, 2018

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