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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Eat less carbon
February 18, 2009 - 5:09pm

I was speaking recently with a representative of Greenback U's dining services. My intent (predictably) was to move them towards changing their menus and practices, with an eye towards emitting less greenhouse gas.

This is a conversation we have periodically, and it pretty much always comes out the same. They do purchase locally when they can, they do push fruits and vegetables as much as possible, they do operate as energy efficiently as possible. They want to do the right thing.

BUT, ... the growing season in Greenback's part of the country isn't long and doesn't much overlap with the school year, and they're cost constrained (financial efficiency is really the only thing they get measured on), and (the ultimate excuse) they've got to serve food that the kids will eat. So, in the final analysis, very little changes. Usually, nothing.

On the surface, it all sounds pretty reasonable. They're kind of right about the growing season, and cost is always an issue (even when the economy isn't in the toilet), and there's no sense serving food that will just go to waste.

However, some personal observations.

  1. I've been on a lot of campuses. Literally hundreds. I've eaten in a lot of dining halls, and talked to a lot of students. My personal estimate is that at over 90% of campuses, the quality of the food is the number one complaint for on-campus students. Usually, by a wide margin. So this thing about needing to serve food that the kids will eat rings a little hollow. Kids will eat what's available to them. They'll complain, regardless. They might prefer burgers, mac & cheese, and pizza, but they'll eat lots of other things, too. And if at first they won't, then it's a learning opportunity (or a teachable moment, as you prefer). As my mother used to say, hunger is a wonderful sauce. And if green veg is a taste you haven't acquired by age 18, you need to learn that education is less expensive than obesity.
  2. Cost shouldn't be a problem. If it is, it's because the food services are designed around a model which doesn't optimize costs at all well. At Greenback, a lot of the food comes in already prepared -- either frozen or in poly-packs. The idea is that this saves both storage space and labor costs, but the truth of the matter is that it's an expensive way to feed a couple thousand of your closest friends. Think about your own grocery shopping -- the frozen pre-made omelets are always more expensive than the eggs and cheese purchased separately, Stouffer's lasagna is at least twice the price of the ingredients to make it yourself, and the fancy vegetables with the pasta and seasonings already mixed in are three times the price (per pound of veg.) as plain old frozen veg. We may be saving labor hours, and we're certainly saving labor dollars by hiring minimally skilled food services workers, but we're not saving dollars. (FWIW, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and came up with a per-student, per-meal ingredients-only budget of $5.28. Labor and all other costs are budgeted at $7.92. Given the economies of scale (guaranteed clientele in the thousands), you should be able to put a helluva meal on the table for that.)
  3. Growing season is a challenge around here, in terms of locally-sourced foods, but not as much as some people would like to pretend. Like a lot of farm families nearby, we eat fresh out of our garden well into November most years. and our own frozen/preserved/canned produce pretty much year-round. Sure, Greenback doesn't have the shelf or freezer space that would be required to store a winter's worth of food on campus, but there are canneries and frozen food companies located nearby, who do. Nearby production of root veg, leafy green veg, cruciferous veg, and fruit (mostly apples, to be sure) is all significant. If we were to enter into supply agreements with local producers, we really wouldn't need a lot of Imperial Valley produce. (And, given recent reports from the Imperial Valley, that's a doubly good thing.)
  4. Finally, there's no reason we need to serve so much beef. In truth, most Americans eat too much meat anyways -- on average, we should cut meat intake by about 40%. (So should our students.) But, more to the point, less of the meat we eat should be beef. Pound for pound, substituting pork cuts food-related ghg emissions by about 75%. Substituting chicken cuts them by 90% or so. (Ask any stock farmer -- cattle are just inefficient weight-gainers.)

For the price they're paying, Greenback's students should be getting fed far better -- better health, better flavor (for those who like flavor -- I know that's not everyone), better sustainability. Talking to the dining services management doesn't seem to be working. I wonder if talking to the students and facilitating a little grassroots pressure might work better.

Any thoughts?


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