Sustainable Campus Dining: How Campuses are Targeting Sustainability and Engagement through Dining Services Initiatives

Sustainable food and dining is a popular topic on college and university campuses. Popular areas of focus include equipment upgrades in the kitchen, installation of campus or community gardens, and streamlining existing campus recycling operations, such as by converting campus vehicles to run on used vegetable oil from the dining hall.

Research shows that these types of projects are ideal funding candidates inside the green revolving fund model as they coincide with the fund’s common goals of reducing resource use and engaging the community. Through the efforts of six private university institutions and their campus projects financed by GRF dollars, or Green Revolving Funds, we have learned a great deal about the obstacles and the successes.

Food and dining garners much attention on college campuses, uniting students, administrators, and dining services staff. There is a growing interest among these stakeholders to know who grew their food and how far it traveled before reaching the dining hall. However, beyond the procurement of local, organic, and fair‐trade certified food, there are a variety of food service initiatives that can both produce monetary savings and reduce a campus’ resource use. Dining services can operate more sustainably in a variety of ways, and some schools have begun to explore these new initiatives by providing funds specifically for sustainability projects.

On the Ground and in the Kitchen: Sustainable Projects on College Campuses
Sustainable dining services projects seek to improve operations in campus kitchens and dining halls. Projects include creating a composting system, retrofitting kitchen equipment, or converting campus tractors to run on recycled vegetable oil from meals served in the dining hall; all of these projects can have quantifiable resource and cost savings and relatively short payback periods. While engaging with the campus community is not always the primary focus of dining services, they can encourage behavior changes in staff and students. Outreach efforts such as posters or flyers can help explain programs including trayless dining or a new composting system, producing both reductions in resource use and increased campus awareness of sustainability initiatives. Though the following initiatives vary in scale, they all share the common goal of reducing operating costs through adopting more sustainable practices.

Carleton College’s Compost Pulper
For those campuses that already conduct their own composting, GRF financing can support greater investments in the efficiency of those initiatives. Martha Larson, Manager of Campus Energy and Sustainability at Carleton College, stated that obtaining a pulper is a great potential project for the college’s Sustainability Loan Fund, as its ability to pulverize food waste beforehand can reduce the operating costs and time required for composting. “A pulper makes compost less messy,” noted Larson. “Highway drips can cause fines, and during the winter watery compost freezes to the bottom of the collection container.”

Carleton College Conducts a Dining Hall Energy Audit
Taking an inventory of energy and resource use in the kitchen can also be an investment for the GRF. “I would want about a year of baseline data of just dining-I would want meters on just the dining equipment circuits and lighting,” said Larson.

Carleton’s two dining halls are in the basement of an academic building and the bottom floor of a residence hall. Larson said that a subsequent approach would be to conduct “energy audits of the dining facilities as their own group, because there would be similarities in water and energy saving measures in both places.” Developing a metric of energy and water usage in food service operations is a valuable tool for prioritizing future upgrades and retrofits.

A loan from the GRF can finance the equipment and labor required to meter the water and energy used by different kitchen appliances, with the resulting data revealing which upgrades and retrofits would be most cost‐effective. Larson also noted that sub‐metering at the panel level would provide an accurate picture of resource use that is only attributable to operations inside dining services.

Reusable Food Containers at Oberlin College and Dartmouth College
Small projects that promote behavioral shifts in the dining halls can have a large environmental and financial impact. Noel Meyers, student co‐chair of Oberlin’s Green EDGE Fund, has overseen approximately 20 projects during his two years on the EDGE Fund Committee. “We have funded a fair amount of projects that Dining Services has approached us with,” said Meyers.

The Green EDGE Fund gave the campus group Campus Dining Services Recyclers $7,000 to purchase reusable food containers for Dascomb Dining Hall. Dascomb is known on campus as a dining hall that allows students to take their food to go. Eliminating disposable to‐go containers reduces packaging, saving Dining Services money and reducing the amount of waste generated by students. Similarly, eliminating bottled water by using the GRF to invest in water filters and reusable bottles ultimately creates cost savings due to the high cost of bottled‐water.

Dartmouth College’s Reusable Water Bottle Sale
At Dartmouth, students are also looking towards reusable containers. Stephanie Gardner, a former Dartmouth student who co‐established the college’s green revolving fund, worked on a reusable water bottle event during her senior year. One weeknight, Gardner, in collaboration with the campus environmental group ECO, sold reusable water bottles to students and staff in the main dining hall’s foyer during dinner hours. Before the event, ECO purchased 100 water bottles for a total of $850, and with Dartmouth Environmental and Health Services subsidizing half the cost, students could purchase the bottles for an affordable five dollars.

ECO had no trouble selling the 100 water bottles at the event, which was part of the kick off for the intercollegiate national recycling competition, Recyclemania. To finance other Recyclemania initiatives, Gardner had to apply for funding from various sources on campus, a reality that Gardner said would have been easier had there been one main funding source for financing sustainability projects.

“I really had to try to pull together funds from a whole bunch of different places, so I think that the Community Fund [a component of Dartmouth’s GRF] is going to be an awesome resource for groups like Ecovores and ECO,” said Gardner. “It would have been a game‐changer for my group.”

Harvard University on Food Waste & Energy Audits
Harvard University seeks to reduce its food waste through strategic sustainability initiatives. “One thing Dining Services has been hoping to do for a while is look more critically at the back‐of‐the-house waste,” said Louisa Denison, the Food Literacy Project Program Coordinator at Harvard University. According to Denison, it is critical to develop a metric of how much prepared food Dining Services discards after each meal and how much waste is generated by students. “Some of the auditing tools out there have employees weighing and categorizing every type of waste that is produced,” said Denison.

Though time‐consuming, Denison said that the data collected helps provide information about how the campus should reduce its waste and realize cost savings. For Harvard, future strategies to save resources may include more batch cooking, or making less food available towards the end of the mealtime. To further their efforts, Harvard Dining Services could also include an educational component for staff and students as part of an initiative to reduce food waste. “Dining Services would ultimately save money because they would not need to haul away as much food. And of course, this would be the more sustainable option because there wouldn’t be as much food waste to begin with,” said Denison.

Kitchen Retrofits and Upgrades
Commercial kitchens use a tremendous amount of energy and water. Many colleges and universities conduct retrofits and upgrades to kitchen equipment in order to curb resource use and achieve monetary savings, and the GRF model can be a good source of funding for these capital‐intensive projects.

Harvard University, for example, has invested about $922,000 in 17 kitchen equipment upgrades and replacements across the university’s multiple dining locations. The funding for these upgrades came directly from Harvard’s Green Loan Fund, and to date the projects have recorded an average simple payback of 3.7 years and a 28 percent average return on investment. Jennifer Stacy, Coordinator of Business and Finance at Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, stated that such a financing mechanism presents an opportunity to develop similar projects if a department cannot afford the initial purchase.

Oberlin College’s Veggie Oil Tractor
The Oberlin Green EDGE Fund financed a project that converted a grounds tractor to run on leftover vegetable oil from the dining halls. The grounds crew converted the initial 35 horsepower tractor in 2009, and since that time has converted an additional 55 horsepower tractor and two lawn mowers. The Green EDGE Fund has invested between $7,500 and $10,000 collectively in these four conversions, each of which have a payback of between four to five years. Upfront costs are primarily from the materials and time required to convert the engine, though there are additional costs from collecting, storing, and filtering the cooking oil to produce usable fuel for the vehicles.

Even with these added expenses, an analysis conducted by Oberlin’s Grounds Department estimated a collective cost savings of $4,660 per year. Most notably, the benefits of this project are twofold: dining services is able to dispose of its used cooking oil, and Grounds can reduce operational costs by shifting from diesel to vegetable oil.

Whitman College: Campus and Community Garden Work
The Model Farm Project at Whitman College shows how campus garden initiatives can engage the community. In 2009, a group of five students proposed a campus garden to Whitman’s GRF, the Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund. In their proposal, the students argued that a garden would provide the campus community, especially students, with a way to interact with food produced on‐site, as well as foster a direct relationship between student growers and Bon Appetit, the college’s food services company. The initiative also aimed to increase the amount of local produce offered in the dining halls and provide data that they hoped would create support for a larger farm project in the future. The Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund contributed a $600 loan to the project, and projected between two to three and a half years to repay the loan.

Due to the high market price for salad greens, the project repaid its initial investment in less than two years. Yet according to Zoe Pehrson, one of the project’s champions and its first garden intern, the Model Farm Project made its biggest impact through student engagement. While the small farm did not significantly alter the amount of sustainably grown food served in the dining halls, Pehrson said that “the amount of educational opportunities and awareness that it has created on campus has been significant, and there is value in that.”

Swarthmore College: Organic Lawn Care
In 2011, the Renewing Fund for Resource Conservation at Swarthmore College invested in an Organic Lawn Care project. Pre‐ and postconsumer food waste generated by the dining hall is brewed into a “compost tea” that is used to fertilize a five‐acre section of turf on campus. To date, the GRF has invested nearly $6,300 into the project. Included in the loan were funds to hire an external turf specialist and the processing equipment (for Swarthmore, it was a large container) to hold the crushed compost, with rotary composters cooking and stirring the liquid.

Carr Everbach, Faculty Co‐Chair of the Sustainability Committee, noted that caring for the lawn organically is an educational experience for students and staff. “It’s part of a science project,” said Everbach. “The organic lawn is only a third of the total size, and so we have lysimeters and groundwater monitoring stations placed both on the organic side and the conventionally Photo provided by Carleton College fertilized side. We’re measuring the properties and we’re doing an assessment and comparison of one piece of lawn that is organic and one piece that is not.” The Organic Lawn Care was estimated to payback in five years by avoiding the costs of the chemical inputs that the school had historically used to maintain the grounds.

Potential Obstacles to Success
Financing food and dining projects with GRF money can present some challenges due to dining services’ unique position as a separate entity on many campuses. Many colleges and universities outsource food service to a third party, so it can be more difficult to connect GRF funding with external companies. John Luthi, Chair of the Bucknell Green Loan Fund, stated that Bucknell University’s contract with Parkhurst may complicate the connection between Dining Services employees and the Renewing Fund for Resource Conservation. “The impact of their contract and the fact that it’s not all Bucknell is just another wrinkle that we have to consider,” said Luthi.

As its first project, the Bucknell University Green Fund invested $7,033 into installing 40 vending units into beverage machines across campus to reduce energy use. With an estimated annual savings of $4,200, the project is on track to pay back the initial investment in less than two years. Green Fund Chair John Luthi noted that the short payback period is what made this project particularly compelling.

Swarthmore’s Renewing Fund for Resource Conservation noted that school‐operated Dining Services face some challenges because of how food service is financed. “Dining Services has its own budget, and it’s a wasting budget that’s not meant to make a profit,” said Everbach. Dining Services receives year‐to‐year funding, and cost savings from projects such as equipment upgrades may not necessarily benefit the organization directly.

Harvard University’s Denison said that although Dining Se