Making the grade: WNC’s college dining programs get high scores for sustainability

STUDY IN SUSTAINABILITY: Western North Carolina colleges and universities actively work to make their food service programs as environmentally responsible and waste-free as possible. UNC Asheville's dining hall has been designated a 3 Star Certified Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association.
STUDY IN SUSTAINABILITY: Western North Carolina colleges and universities actively work to make their food service programs as environmentally responsible and waste-free as possible. UNC Asheville's dining hall has been designated a 3 Star Certified Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville

Increasingly, U.S. colleges and universities are working to make their institutions as environmentally sustainable as possible. These efforts cover a broad spectrum, from a recycling initiative at Stanford University that diverts 65 percent of the school’s solid waste away from landfills to Cornell’s plan to be carbon-neutral by 2035, as noted in The Princeton Review’s annual ranking of the nation’s eco-friendly colleges. Another important area of focus is dining programs.

Western North Carolina schools are among those taking important steps toward going green, especially in their food service operations. In addition to programs that are already in place, many have laid out lofty food-related sustainability goals for the near future.

Eating green

Recently, UNC Asheville became the first higher-education facility in North Carolina to achieve designation as a Fair Trade University by Fair Trade Campaigns, and its dining hall is now certified as a 3 Star Certified Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association. “Because of where we are geographically and the focus on sustainability in this region, it was kind of a no-brainer to make sustainability a huge focus of the dining program,” says Sarah Nicholson, marketing manager for UNC Asheville and Mars Hill University.

The school wanted outside entities to grade what it was doing in the spirit of transparency and awareness, she says. But now that the university has earned these designations, it has no intention of resting on its laurels. “We hope to expand our local purchasing program, get more creative with waste diversion efforts and continue with our education and student involvement,” says Brooks Casteel, director of UNC Asheville Dining Services. “The students are what is really going to make the difference long term.” A path she recommends for organizations looking to increase their sustainability efforts is to frame goals in a way that appeals to business sense by highlighting cost savings and long-range community impact.

UNC Asheville’s commitment to sustainability extends far beyond its dining program — the school has a thriving environmental studies department, a weeklong Greenfest that happens twice a year and a student environmental center. The school also brought Meghan Ibach on board in the role of sustainability coordinator in September. She is charged with organizing all schoolwide efforts into one cohesive program.

She has already made headway, creating Farm-Forward Eating and Environmentally Driven Sustainability as a platform that pulls together all of the school’s sustainability initiatives under one branding umbrella. She coordinates with UNCA’s Fair Trade committee, Nutrition and Food Justice and Mindful Mondays groups, and helps plan Greenfest. But, despite her best efforts, there are some goals the school has yet to meet, such as being able to source 100 percent of the dining program’s food items locally. “It would be great if more locally made products were available both commercially and at a more competitive price point,” says Nicholson. “Smiling Hara and No Evil Foods are two great examples of locally made products that are widely available, and we use a lot, but it would be great to have other types of local foods at this scale.”

UNCA Dining Services partners with Chartwells, a company that focuses on resource and waste management for higher education. Meredith Bracken, Chartwells’ director of brand voice and digital strategy, says the business helps campuses be more sustainable by providing “compostable to-go options, reusable container programs, partnerships for school gardens and farmers markets, design and construction builds, kitchen facility equipment and much more, all with a sustainability focus.”

Chartwells’ software systems, she adds, can even track emissions in the school’s supply chain, helping the university understand its overall impact. The company also encourages campuses to offer plant-based meals since these are scientifically proven to have a lower carbon footprint than animal-based foods. UNCA has many such options, including Rosetta’s Kitchenette, an outpost of the downtown vegetarian eatery.

Sustainable in the mountains

Since UNCA and Mars Hill share a marketing manager for their dining services, it’s not surprising that MHU, too, has committed to being a sustainable campus. “It isn’t any one big project but rather smaller things that we’ve continued doing and building upon over time,” Nicholson says. “It’s a priority because we want to support the community we’re in by donating unused food, sourcing from local farmers, and reducing our waste streams.”

Yet Mars Hill’s remote location does create some hurdles. “Because we’re just enough out of the Asheville area, it can be a little difficult to get the products we need up here,” she says. “Being able to have some of these local products available through our larger supplier, Sysco, would be great.”

Both universities work with the nonprofit Food Connection to distribute food that otherwise would be wasted to local groups that provide meals to those in need. UNCA has donated over 25,000 pounds of food since it began partnering with Food Connection in 2014, and Mars Hill has a renewed dedication to the program and its dining service’s overall sustainability efforts after recently hiring a new management team.

Over in Cullowhee, Western Carolina University has been ahead of the curve, ensuring zero post-consumer or post-production food waste since the 1970s thanks to a partnership with a local hog farmer. “This past year, 232,000 pounds of food waste was collected as feedstock and diverted from the landfill,” explains Lauren Bishop, WCU’s chief sustainability officer. The dining program also adheres to Aramark’s Green Thread program, a sustainability guide created by the campus food service provider, and recycles fryer oil through Blue Ridge Biofuels.

Bishop also says the university’s focus on treating the campus as a “living-learning laboratory” is an effective tool for promoting sustainability. “Our unique and beautiful setting definitely helps attract students that love the outdoors. By letting our students act as innovators, designers and problem-solvers to lead the way in shaping our campus, they can gain the experiences and education to be successful in life,” she says.

One way WCU students have stepped up to the plate as problem-solvers is through the Sustainability Energy Initiative, a committee of students and staff advisers that apportions money for renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades, research and internships at the school. Students pay a fee of $5 each per semester to fund the committee. “All projects have to demonstrate a connection to sustainability and educational value to students. It operates like an internal grant opportunity, and any faculty, staff or student can submit proposal ideas,” Bishop says. Additionally, she notes that almost all of WCU’s programs have some aspect of sustainability embedded in the curriculum, in part because “we see the interest and level of involvement from students increasing every year.”

Green goals

Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa has identified four specific sustainability goals, all of which relate to food in some way. One is associated with the school’s participation in the Real Food Challenge, which invites institutions to aim for 20 percent of their food purchases to be locally produced, ecologically sound, humane and fair. In 2013, Warren Wilson became the first school in the Southeast to accept the challenge, and now students have committed to doubling the initiative’s goal. Their efforts have already helped WWC achieve 30 percent Real Food, the third-highest score in the country among colleges.

Warren Wilson has also committed to sourcing 40 percent of its food locally by 2020 — it currently sits at 34 percent. “We have a strict commitment to quantifying all of our food purchases in dining services,” explains the college’s sustainability and marketing coordinator, Rebecca Walton. “The Local Foods Crew does an exhaustive annual local audit of all purchases. The results from the audit let us know where our areas of opportunity are.”

Another bold effort is Warren Wilson’s focus on fossil fuel divestment. “Companies involved in the industries and promotion of renewable energy, organic food, local food, sustainable agriculture, community development and diversity generally invest in companies and investments that demonstrate a commitment to environmental, social and governance principles,” says Amy Knisley, the chair of WWC’s environmental studies department.

Finally, Warren Wilson intends to achieve 90 percent waste aversion by 2023 with its Zero Waste Initiative, which ensures accountability around waste management practices. “The ZWI ensures that we reach our goal through annual checkups and meticulous data collection,” explains Ben Paulson, the college’s recycling and solid waste coordinator. And like UNCA, Warren Wilson relies heavily on its students to lead these efforts. Every student is required to be part of one of the over 100 campus work crews, help manage the WWC farm’s meat sale and be a part of the student-run Friday garden markets and community-supported agriculture program.

Laying good groundwork is key for institutions that hope to become more sustainable, says Walton. “I think creating solid infrastructure is essential to maintaining sustainable dining programs and really any sustainability program,” she says. “Sustainability isn’t something that you just do and check a box and move on. It’s really a way of doing business that needs to be a priority every day. I think certain systems and specific objectives need to be in place in order to stay accountable and also so you’re not reinventing the wheel anytime there’s a shift in management or employee turnover. This is especially critical when it comes to sustainable and local food tracking.”

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