Thursday, August 5, 2010

Green up Your Campus Dining Service

With the start of the fall semester nearly on us, college dining service directors need to look to "greening" their healthy dining and sustainability credentials. Students, far more than other groups, are keenly aware of environmental issues and expect their college or university -- especially the dining services -- to be at the leading edge of sustainability and wellness trends.

Independently-managed and contractor-operated campus dining services generally reflect the most popular environmental trends: fresh food, recycling and waste reduction. But students, as well as faculty members and administrators, will expect more this academic year.

In the past, many dining services provided organic and/or vegetarian foods is a separate ghetto-like section of the dining facility's servery, saving the best locations for the more popular pizza, sub sandwiches, burgers and the like. Today, however, students expect environmentally-favorable foods and features to be center stage, including pizzas with whole-grain crusts, vegetarian subs and burgers made from hormone-free beef, as well as other healthy and meat-free options that are organic and locally-sourced.

One of the most successful ways to say "fresh," "wholesome" and "nutritious" to diners is the "action station." Here a chef prepares the diner's meal to order on a countertop cooking unit on the serving line, adding or omitting ingredients to the customer's order.

To-order cooking is cost-effective as well as customer-pleasing. Ingredients are cooked only when the customer orders a dish. The only leftover are raw products that, if properly kept at a safe temperature (40 to 35 degrees F) will remain fresh and safe for reuse in another, different dish at the next meal or the next day. Food cost is significantly lower than for food prepared in large batches that may not all be served right away, creating leftovers of minimal or no value.

Students and many other people are aware of the nutrition and environmental values of locally-sourced foods and now expect to see them in the dining center. Buying from local farmers may take more effort than calling a wholesale distributor, but the end product, delivered just a day or a few days after being harvested is worth the effort.

Many states now have programs to support institutional purchasing from local farms, making it easier than traveling the countryside to search out farmer-suppliers. Many distributors now also offer local farm products as par of their lines.

The other half of an environmentally-friendly dining service, a sustainable operation, requires more thought and effort and it includes waster reduction (helped by to-order cooking) and the conservation of water, electrical and other utilities.

Waste reduction begins with more careful menu and purchasing planning to reduce over- production and a plan to properly dispose of the waste that does occur. Food waste can be composted and used to enrich a campus vegetable garden -- which can sell fresh product back to the dining service.

Paper products made from recycled materials and plastic eating utensils from corn- or soy-based materials that degrade more quickly than conventional plastics in a landfill can be used. A better option is to reduce or eliminate disposable tableware, replacing it with real china, glasses and stainless steel knives, forks and spoons.

Reducing water and utility consumption takes a two-pronged approach: Turning off equipment, like ventilation systems, ovens and electrical appliances when not in use is one important approach that costs nothing and saves a lot. The second prong is the replacement of old, inefficient equipment with new units, such as dishwashing machines that use less water amid cooking equipment that requires less power.

A good resources for the improvement of a dining service's sustainability is the Green Restaurant Association, whose website,, offers a comprehensive listing of steps any restaurant or on-sit dining service operator can take to improve its environmental standards.

The GRA also offers a Green Restaurant Certification program, similar to the LEED certification for buildings. There's no better way to show the campus community that you are doing your best for the planet than to gain this certification.