Quick Dish: Q+A with Brooks Casteel of UNC Asheville Dining Services

GOING GREEN: Brooks Casteel, UNC Asheville director of dining services, says that when it comes to sustainability, "we’re always looking to push the needle." Photo by Liisa Andreassen

Green things are sprouting at UNC Asheville’s dining program. The school’s Brown Dining Hall was recently designated a 3-Star Certified Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association. And it also recently became the first higher-education facility in North Carolina to be named a Fair Trade University by Fair Trade Campaigns, a consumer movement that recognizes organizations and communities for implementing and promoting fair trade practices and principles.

Xpress sat down with Brooks Casteel, UNC Asheville’s director of dining services, to find out more about how the facility earned these honors.

Mountain Xpress: What are the criteria for being named a Certified Green Restaurant?
Brooks Casteel: The GRA is a third-party auditing system, and they look at how your dining facility impacts the environment. They look at things like building materials, lightbulbs, equipment, waste stream diversion, products we order and chemicals we use. Based on that data, they rate you. We got a two-star rating back quickly, but we wanted more. Four was not possible — you need to be a LEED-certified building for that, which we’re not. But we could achieve three stars. It was just more information gathering. It’s an added level of transparency for us.

Does the GRA come in and audit from time to time?
We have to send in photos and invoices every year to maintain the status.

Why was this GRA certification important to you?
It offered a way for us to tell our story. It’s a highly regarded status in a sustainability community, and we wanted another facility to rate us and compare us to others.

Educating the community seems important to you. How do you do that?
We have a variety of programs and events. We do things like fair trade teas and tastings with fair trade chocolate. A student might not be so excited about going to a lecture on fair trade, but when you turn into something fun like a tea party, you’ll get a better turnout and then can add the educational component in, too. We have a committee of students and staff that meets throughout the semester to plan these events. For example, there was a recent bake sale, and we approached the organizers about providing fair trade sugar so they could bake some of their items using it — we’re always looking for ways to educate.

We also just had our third annual farm-to-table dinner. We work with the Office of Sustainability and a few other student groups on campus to put them on. We source local items — a lot are donated from our local vendors. These dinners also give us an opportunity to use some of the items from campus gardens. We don’t use stuff from these gardens on a regular basis, but for special events like this, we do a GAP [good agricultural practices] audit to make sure we can use those specialized items.

What vendors do you use?
We use broadline suppliers but try to purchase as much local as possible. Mountain Foods is our main produce supplier, and New Sprout Organic is also fantastic. New Sprout provides a lot to big markets that want those perfect-looking items. They offer us items that are a little less than perfect so we can get local and organic food at really good prices. We also work with Hickory Nut Gap Farms.

What does ‘local’ mean to you?
Our company says 250 miles. We also think it’s important to source regionally. We created a tier system for identifying local. For example, it’s still better to get our oranges from say Florida than California. Mountain Foods has been great. They’ve been able to tell us where the stuff is coming from as far as miles goes. Our tier system is based on color: A product with a green label means it’s from North Carolina — within 250 miles. Blue means it was grown in North Carolina or South Carolina, and purple is the Southeast. This color system is a way for people to identify where items come from. It’s important to our community on campus; local is a big thing they’re looking for.

I see you recently hired a sustainability coordinator. What does she do?
Her name is Meghan Ibach, and she went to school here. To further deepen and strengthen our commitment to sustainability, we felt we needed a full-time person to pull it all together and drive it. Our platform was getting so big, and it was a little too piecemeal. We wanted someone with a dynamic personality who could get the students excited. She’s fantastic. She’s been key for procurement and helped us start FEEDS.

What is FEEDS?
It’s a platform for our sustainability program. It stands for Farm Forward Eating and Environmentally Driven Sustainability. We basically wanted a logo, signage, etc., so that if someone saw FEEDS, they would know it’s about our sustainability program — waste reduction, GRA stuff or any educational events.

Are UNC Asheville’s dining facilities open to the public?
Yes. Lunch averages about $8-$9.

What are you doing that you’re most proud of?
Transparency and food waste. We work with Food Connection, a local nonprofit that takes our excess and delivers it to folks in the community — they come three times a week. We also do pre- and post-consumer composting. Our dish room doesn’t even have a trash can. We only have something under the hand-washing station for gloves and things like that. Everything is scraped straight off the dishes into a compost bin. That’s pretty huge for us. Our on-site waste management facility also works with Danny’s Dumpsters. They take any waste and turn it into compost for use in farming, etc. We also have Project Clean Plate, which works on reducing waste from a consumer standpoint: Take what you can eat. You can always go back and get more. And, our Cup-panion program also helps reduce waste. If you use your reusable cup and refill it, we scan it, and you get a discount, and then we contribute 15 cents from every purchase to Food Connection.

What’s in store for the future?
We’re always looking to push the needle. We’re doing some student surveys regarding retail concepts right now. We continue to educate ourselves on the issues and attend conferences. I think we’re doing some great things in higher-education dining. I’m proud of it all.


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