Green Menus: College Campuses Opt for Sustainable Dining

By Shufro, Cathy | E Magazine, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Green Menus: College Campuses Opt for Sustainable Dining


Shufro, Cathy, E Magazine


It took only a few weeks for the news to spread last fall: The food served at Yale University's Berkeley College dining hall was the best on campus. Students assigned to eat in the 11 other residential colleges (Yale's version of dorms) wanted in. One day, eight students tried to sneak by the check-in clerk with forged IDs, but the imposters were discovered. Writing in a campus newspaper, one of the ID forgers complained that the dining hall's few spots for guests "are taken by the losers who get into line 20 minutes before the damned place even opens."

Why are Yale students resorting to identity theft? The draw is Yale's new "sustainable dining program," which offers meals made from local, seasonal and sustainably grown food, cooked using recipes developed under the guidance of famed California restaurateur Alice Waters.

Across the nation, from The College of the Atlantic on the Maine coast to Stanford University in California, college cafeterias are increasingly working to bypass, at least in part, the corporate food industry. Sometimes in response to student pressure, sometimes in keeping with institutional philosophies, a growing number of schools are reducing their use of pre-fab foods: those mammoth plastic bags of shredded iceberg lettuce, stacks of frozen beef patties and cardboard containers of pourable beaten eggs--all food of uncertain age and provenance. Instead, they are "cooking whole," from scratch, and incorporating local, organic and seasonal foods into their menus. A few institutions are getting some of their food from right on campus, harvested from student-run organic gardens.

Advocates of sustainable dining argue that the ripple effects from this reorientation can be far-reaching, even transformative. They hope that recreating local networks of food production and distribution will revive local economies; influence farmers to grow foods responsibly; save farms and thereby stem sprawl; enrich the curriculum; reduce consumption of oil used for fertilizers and trucking; combat obesity by providing alternatives to highly processed foods; and restore mealtime to its place as the center of social life.

Joshua L. Viertel, the program's director, says, "It starts with the menu." On a recent burger day, dining hall offerings also included Boston clam chowder, Japanese mushroom soup, smoked ham and gruyere sandwiches, and pizettas with sweet potato and goat cheese. "So many environmental movements are based on self-denial," Viertel says. "This takes a hedonistic pleasure in doing the right thing."

Nine months into its transformative program, Yale's Berkeley College manages to get about half its produce from regional suppliers (compared to 20 percent in the other dining halls). Viertel notes that the $6.5 million Yale spends annually on food for undergraduates could help sustain farms in a state that loses more than 8,000 acres of cropland each year. "We cast our vote three times a day," he says.

The pilot program at Yale faces a major obstacle: food costs under the new regime run about 50 percent higher than those for conventional meals. That gap is now bridged by a grant from an anonymous donor.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, 1993 graduate Brad Masi tells the story of how he and fellow students succeeded in redirecting college dining money into northeastern Ohio. It began in 1990, when some of the 650 co-op housing students, who run their own kitchens, decided to buy more local food. That first year, they managed to spend $10,000 locally. By 2002-2003, the Chops and the college dining service together spent $225,000 of a $2. …

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