Food is something we all see smell and taste every day. Because of the ubiquity, or perhaps growing up with a health food store named after me, the sustainability of growing and consuming food has been a long time interest of mine. There are so many facets beyond health and nutrition: cultural, economic, historic, and environmental factors to name a few. As an introduction to the topic of campus dining sustainability, the first websites that I wanted to read were the ones that offered a rating or report card. The Sierra Club gave a 5/10 ranking of food, about in the middle range of the issues ranked, with an overall grade of D. The College Sustainability Report Card had food and recycling as the highest ranked category of all, B, with an overall score of D+. So overall, the food and dining at Depaul is ranking ahead of many of the other areas graded on these two reports,Sustainability Report Card and Sierra Club.
The College Sustainability Report Card was based on a more detailed study as this was the one part of the grade that was based on a survey conducted with DePaul dining staff.
Dining hall sustainability falls into many categories: local food, organic food, “natural” food (hormone-free), sustainable food (fishing guidelines), fair trade and non-food consumables (trays, utensils). The statistics I found most interesting and inspiring was the amount of money DePaul spent on sustainable food, $68,046 on locally produced food, $234,335 on locally processed, and $41,007 on organic food from the total budget of $3,985,997. Yes this is shy of 9%, so may not seem near large enough, but this is not including all of those other sustainable practices, fair trade, cage free eggs or sustainable caught fish. So if close to 10 percent of the food consumed in DePaul, is in some way more sustainable than the average food found in the Jewel, this is progress and deserving of our good rankings. The survey, completed by the Director of Dining, may speak more to the corporate sustainability of the contractor, The Compass Group, which owns Chartwells, the campus food service provider. Looking at Chartwells’ sustainability page, they seem to focus more on the waste reduction, composting, recycling and reducing waste, but less on the nature of the food goods themselves. They do have a section talking about the vegetarian options, and a short mention of their sustainable food emphasis but not as explicitly as I was expecting given the local wave of local and sustainable food books, movies and media in the past few years.
DePaul does give Chartwells credit for their green practices, ”DePaul's food service provider, Chartwells, is active in sustainable practices throughout the entire food operation. Thirty percent of meals in the dining halls are vegetarian options; 15 percent of food expenses are devoted to local or organic products.” When an institution is as large as DePaul choosing a contractor that shares similar philosophies and values is probably the most efficient way to reach their sustainability goals.
Locally grown and processed foods reduce transportation costs and emissions and add to the local economy. Organically and naturally grown foods reduce the amount of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals entering our soils and running into our waterways. Becoming a more local and organic food chain is certainly not going to fix all of the problems in America with food and farming. But the college dining hall, a place where many students are making all their own food choices for the first time in their lives, is an excellent place to inspire food awareness. In the few dining facilities I have been to since coming to DePaul, one thing I have found lacking is better signage and labeling of the goods. If there were signs showing the foods that came from local farms, or are organic, or if I knew 98% of the fish was listed on the sustainable fish list, I may make different choices. Assuming that with more students aware and choosing these choices, that will lead to more demand and increased amounts of money spent on sustainable products would increase.
By Rebecca Dill
Photo: gapersblock.com, Green Acre Produce, a DePaul food supplier, at Chicago’s Green City market