Sustainable Food ‘Is on the Brink of Going Viral’ on Campuses

To the Editor:

Anyone concerned about quality of life on higher education campuses—especially food service operators—should appreciate and take heed of William R. Wootton’s “Fire Your Food Service and Grow Your Own” (The Chronicle, March 11).

I especially appreciate his point about the clashing missions of colleges and food-service providers. Whether a college food service is run independently or by a corporation, it is incongruous for the two entities to run separately and with different goals in mind. Only when food-service providers and their universities begin to align their respective missions and work collaboratively will we begin to see the systemic change his article calls for.

Here at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, UMass Dining is an independent, college-operated food-service provider. UMass Dining places local, certified-organic sourcing as top priority. The students demanded it, and we’ve listened. Yet, as Mr. Wootton pointed out, it becomes difficult to change sourcing if you’re locked into a third-party contract. Nine times out of 10, financial feasibility seems to be the insurmountable hurtle—or, rather, the companies “have little financial or managerial incentive” to make changes.

If both independent and corporate food-service providers opened their eyes to the intangible values above the bottom line, we might find ourselves moving towards the future envisioned in this article.

UMass Dining’s mission is “to contribute to the campus life experience” as well as the local community. Our well-established relationships with neighboring farmers allow us to source nearly 30 percent of our produce locally. In turn, UMass provides healthy, vibrant, and engaging products, services, and knowledge that complement and support the academic, recreational, and social goals of the University.

We have successfully initiated and staffed one of the most aggressive and progressive sustainability programs in the country. Our switch to trayless dining, coupled with a dogged belief in composting and recycling has led to a waste-diversion rate in excess of 70 percent (at UMass Amherst we divert over 1,000 tons of organic waste annually), all while we continue working to reduce waste entirely.

In terms of education, UMass Dining and the university’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture have formed a partnership to expand academic programming for sustainable food systems. UMass also has one of the fastest growing undergraduate and graduate degree programs in sustainable food and farming in the nation, and many of our students elect to focus on permaculture within this degree.

UMass is not perfect, nor do we believe we have all of the answers, but we are certainly trying. In an effort to connect sustainable leaders and food-service providers from campuses around the globe, UMass Amherst is hosting the 2013 Permaculture Your Campus Conference this June. Students, food-service directors, and faculty and staff members will explore diverse models of institutional sustainability and establish an international network of colleagues working to create the culture of sustainability that every campus needs.

We pride ourselves in the fact that the aforementioned “good stuff” is a direct reflection of UMass Amherst as land-grant institution. The better our program is, the more we contribute what it means to be part of the campus community. But ours is just one example of the many university-dining programs that are joining this nationwide trend to source sustainable food and place a strong emphasis on educating their students about food and agricultural systems. The trend is on the brink of going viral. We can only hope that more universities and foodservice providers start working to the same end so we can collectively tip the scales toward a more sustainable future.

Ken Toong
Executive Director
Auxiliary Enterprises
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Mass.

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