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Archives > September 2014 > The Key to Sustainable Dining? Just EAT: Eat, Analyze, Transform

The Key to Sustainable Dining? Just EAT: Eat, Analyze, Transform

Students at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, are increasing how much they E.A.T. in the dining hall. No, they're not consuming more. In fact, the changes have drastically decreased food waste.

By: Jeff Canning

Instead, students are going through the E.A.T. Program to help Engage, Analyze, and Transform the eating habits of everyone on campus to help promote a more sustainable model. The program is a happy marriage between the academic mission of the college, as well as working with Metz Culinary Management to transform the dining hall into an extension of the classroom.

"The research performed by students in E.A.T. has two main goals,"said Robert Valgenti, associate professor of philosophy and director of the E.A.T Program. "The first is to improve the dining experience for students and the second is to dissolve the boundaries between the dining and academic spaces on campus. Students spend several hours each day in the dining facilities. There's no reason why this time can't also be utilized in their education."

One of the greatest challenges facing dining services is getting students to better understand their eating habits and how to make choices that are beneficial for themselves and sustainable for the environment. It's not always easy for students who suddenly make all of the decisions of their diet by themselves.

"Transitioning from eating at home and eating on your own is a big challenge," Valgenti said. "Students go from having most of their meals planned by their parents to having complete control over what they eat and when they eat it. Often, they don't recognize what is healthy and they don't recognize that being wasteful with food still has consequences even when they're not paying per dish."

Research projects all have the same core goal of creating solid data to influence change in the cafeteria. In just one year, it is having serious impact on curbing food waste and making the dining hall a leaner operation.

According to Bill Allman, general manager and director of sustainability for Metz, the E.A.T. Program helped lower the cost per meal from $2.54 cents to $2.44. Over the course of more than 416,000 meals, that translates to a savings of $39,165.38.

To measure the effects the awareness campaign was having, junior Ashley Smith compared and contrasted edible food waste over the course of the semester. As students learned more, waste declined dramatically. Edible food waste per person was reduced by 19 percent, keeping an estimated 25,432 pounds of food out of landfills.

The program began by receiving a grant from LVC's President's Innovation Fund to help faculty members develop new ways to implement high impact learning experiences for students. Research conducted by students is not just for the sake of the project, but also influences decisions on how Metz can best serve the student population.

Valgenti, who has always been intrigued by the ethical implications of eating habits, hopes the partnership will be an effective way to further LVC's goals to expand critical thinking, ethical reasoning, respect for diversity and commitment to sustainability. The partnership with Metz has worked so well at LVC that the dining service provider hopes to replicate the E.A.T. Program at several other institutions, now that the successful model is in place.

"E.A.T. has helped inspire me personally. Metz allows their general managers to be entrepreneurial and creative which helped me develop the T.A.S.T.E. Initiative to work alongside the E.A.T. Program and empower students to start Taking Action for a Sustainable Tomorrow Everywhere," said Allman. "The most important reason for students to join this initiative is to be good stewards of our most important resource: food. By taking small sustainable steps, we can keep working toward a better world."

The dining hall at LVC is also becoming a hub for cultural diversity. 2014 graduate Ashley Ferrari created the "Tastes From Home" recipe contest so students could submit their own favorite home-cooked meals to share with the campus community. The winning recipe was featured on the menu this spring, but also empowered students to make the dining experience more personal, expose students to various foods from different cultures, and also provided the nostalgia of a home-cooked meal.

The E.A.T. Program is available as a for-credit offering but it's having a deeper impact on the campus beyond those enrolled in the course. This spring, freshmen Corey Kuchinsky and Zach Kirby noticed another opportunity for the institution to serve the community it calls home. The two coordinated with Metz and with the Office of Community Service to create an ongoing system to donate unused food to Palmyra Area Cooperating Churches Caring Cupboard providing meals to families in need. Food that was previously thrown away can now serve a genuine purpose in the region, as 30-40 pounds of food get delivered twice per week to provide a complete meal with meats, vegetables, and starches.

This summer, members of the E.A.T. Research Group traveled to Burlington, Vt., to present at the Collaboration and Innovation Across the Food System Conference. Two students presented the research they had conducted and the E.A.T. Group overall held a roundtable discussion to talk about the impact of the program.

"This is an international conference for food professionals and academics in the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, so having Ashley Smith and Anthony Feudale present as undergraduate students is very impressive," Valgenti said. "The group session provided great feedback from the attendees. There are plenty of sustainability models out there in the industry, but what got people excited was the connection between dining services and academic research. That's the core of the E.A.T. Program.

"Students undertake the initiative to do these projects, the findings of which will impact what happens in the dining hall," he added. "The research is not just a feel good feather in our cap. They're actually influencing change for the better."



About The Author
Jeff Canning

began working with Dick Jones Communications in Feb. 2012 and has since secured placements for clients in prominent outlets including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Bloomberg, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Forbes and Associated Press.






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