Greening Your Dining Services: Key Opportunities

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A quick scan of the nation’s media will show a plethora of stories about institutions adopting practices such as trayless dining and — in some cases — composting or purchasing of local and organic food. Dining services professionals continue to face pressure from student groups and administrators to “green” their operations, work with local farmers, and reduce waste emissions; yet few institutions have taken a comprehensive approach to sustainable dining, moving beyond going trayless to making a substantive impact on the campus’ carbon footprint.

To identify some low-cost opportunities and learn more about how dining services professionals can think comprehensively about greening dining services, we turned to one of the forerunners in this area — Nell Fry, the sustainability coordinator for Georgia Tech’s dining services. Here is Fry’s advice.

Understand Your Footprint

“Where to start: think about your carbon footprint as a dining services operation on campus. With all the equipment and water we’re using, often a dining services operation can have five times the footprint of anywhere else on campus.”
Nell Fry, Georgia Tech

“Trayless and composting are very good and easy first steps,” Fry suggests, “but there are lots of easy, simple, and inexpensive next steps you can take. Look at opportunities for water, waste, and energy management. Can you set a policy of turning on equipment an hour before a dining time, rather than hours earlier?”

Staff Training

“Education is the big thing,” Fry advises, and this means communicating the importance of your greening effort to both front-line employees and supervisors.

For example, you could engage your front-line staff for brief sessions each week to roll out new policies for waste management in the kitchens and communicate why dining services needs to care about the effort. At Georgia Tech, Fry put in place a seven-week program consisting of 10-minute weekly sessions that covered why sustainability was important to the operation (cost savings and response to student demand), and discussed tips for energy, water, and waste management. “This is a zero-cost program,” Fry emphasizes. “Engaging your employees just takes the little time to write up an outline, deliver the sessions, and listen to their questions.”

To really see results from a training program of this kind:

  • Generate energy around the effort by making the information relevant to the daily lives of your staff, not just at work but at home (for example, offer 10 tips for cutting down your home’s utilities bill, encourage employees to share their own best practices for energy and water savings at home, and connect the effort to a broader social purpose, such as making the world cleaner and more sustainable for the next generation)
  • Incentivize employee engagement with sustainability-related prizes (such as offering water bottles as prizes for correct answers on employee training questions)
  • Follow up on the training with accountability by ensuring that attention on/off times for equipment and other sustainability measures are factored into supervision and evaluation; “You can’t meter everything,” Fry notes, “so make it a priority and a responsibility for the supervisor to ensure measures are carried out”

Communicate with Your Campus

To take your sustainable dining efforts to the next level, Fry advises these steps:

  • Engage students — learn what they care about and what the local community or region cares about (is water management a key concern in the region? Is there a lot of support in the student body for purchasing local, organic food?)
  • Engage facilities management proactively — put in place a rigorous and regular schedule for preventative maintenance, and work with campus facilities staff to build checklists for maintaining equipment. “You don’t want to be only reactive,” Fry suggests; “if your dishwasher breaks down, you have to purchase paper plates — that’s a cost and it creates more waste and inconvenience for students”
  • Tell the story of your efforts by connecting with the student newsletter, the alumni magazine, and the various faculty and staff newsletters on your campus; also, Fry recommends identifying what bloggers and columnists in your local community converse regularly about these issues

Communicate with Your Vendors

One Catch-22 in sustainable dining is the high cost of purchasing local food. “When your margins are razor-thin,” Fry remarks, “that’s a significant barrier.”

That said, there are a couple of proactive steps campus dining services can take:

  • Express your needs to your vendors and look for opportunities to buy organic food in bulk at a lower price
  • Implement local food selections in retail locations where students choose individual pieces, rather than in dining hall locations that are set up as all-you-can-eat venues; “At a food court, for example,” Fry observes, “you can set the price point where you need it”

If you have the desire to include more local and organic food choices at your campus, these steps can help mitigate the costs of getting started.