Change on a fork

Tim Galarneau, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), packs fresh kale from the UCSC Farm with CASFS apprentices David Evershed, left, and Marsha Habib. (Photo by Phil Carter)

WEDNESDAY 10 A.M. The kale and beets sitting on a kitchen counter at College Eight, bursting with vivid purples and deep greens, were in the ground just an hour before.

"This is prime time for kale right now," said David Evershed, who had brought several boxes of organic produce from the UCSC Farm to College Eight Dining Hall's kitchen through the January chill.

"It gets super sweet in the cold," said the bearded young man, gesturing to a large, leafy bundle of kale with a knowing smile. "Like candy."

Evershed, a second-year apprentice with UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), is part of a grassroots movement started by students and encouraged by the campus's Dining Services unit to change the world one bite at a time.

Dining Services, started in 2004 after the campus ended its contract with integrated food and facilities management giant Sodexo (previously Sodexho), has become one of the most cutting-edge campus food service divisions in the nation, constantly seeking out and incorporating innovative methods to increase sustainability and reduce waste.

The department has done so well with those twin goals since becoming self-operated, in fact, that it recently beat out more than 20 national competitors to win a $5,000 grant to invest in even more projects. In addition, UCSC's dining halls were ranked the nation's "greenest" by Plenty magazine, a major environmental publication. (Read about measures Dining Services has taken to increase sustainability.)

The effort has been rewarding, said Scott Berlin, director of Dining and Hospitality Services, and UCSC has the luck to be in its particular location-overlooking the rich farmland of the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, home to some of the most successful and productive organic farming operations in the country.

But the movement, he said, was student-generated and continues to be fueled by student energy.

"There's a significant amount of student interaction. It's a unique aspect," Berlin said. "These were student successes; we were just a willing vehicle."

Roots of reform

In 2003, the campus group Students for Organic Solutions brought together various stakeholders of the campus food system at the annual Earth Summit to discuss how to create sustainable change in the system, including purchasing organic produce from local farmers. At the same time, other students were expressing frustration with Sodexo's labor practices.

The discussions continued at the 2004 Earth Summit, and participants formed the Food Systems Working Group, which drafted purchasing guidelines for the campus that included buying local, certified organic, worker-supportive food products. After a six-month student campaign, UCSC ended its 30-year contract with Sodexo in June 2004.

Student-generated groundswell has, in fact, been at the heart of a sustainability movement for the entire UC system.

Many national reviews and assessments indicate that the system leads the higher-education pack in making big green changes, creating the most comprehensive and ambitious sustainability policy of any university system in the United States, according to the California Sustainability Alliance.

UC's path to leadership in sustainability was initiated by students who teamed up with the environmental group Greenpeace to bring together student activists, administrators, and faculty to tackle the lack of formal environmental awareness among the UC campuses.

Inspired by students' calls for action, the Board of Regents adopted a sustainability policy in 2003.

While UCSC's Dining Services unit is among those at the forefront of the campus sustainability movement, experts are seeing a trend toward sustainable food initiatives at universities and colleges across the nation.

"As institutions have committed to focusing on sustainability as a whole on campus, they are finally waking up to the fact that food is the one thing that connects all the issues surrounding sustainability: environmental, local economy, social issues, and, of course, the health and well-being of the people eating it," said John Turenne, president of consulting and technical-services company Sustainable Food Systems in Wallingford, Conn.

Everybody eats

Tim Galarneau (College Eight, '05) was a student in 2004, double majoring in psychology and community studies with an agroeceology/social justice emphasis. He was among those leading the student push for food sustainability and waste reduction, and he still is today as a staff member. He works as a food systems education and research program specialist at CASFS, and continues to help chair the Food Systems Working Group, which does education and outreach events on campus and works on sustainability, energy, and waste issues.

"Food is what really connects all of us," said Galarneau. "When I speak to groups, I ask them, 'How many of you out there eat?' It's a common equation-all of us eat, or would like to eat more than we do."

The United States' food system is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, said Galarneau.

"Not examining that is missing the point, and looking at it is a key part of planning, education, research, and problem-solving," he said. "I really wanted to carry that forward and share that excitement and enthusiasm and help people understand what they can do to shape the food system and their community."

In the run-up to Dining Services' self-operation, Galarneau and others worked with local organic farmers to form a syndicate, called the Monterey Bay Organic Farmers Consortium, which agreed to pool its goods and contract with the campus to provide locally grown organic produce. This contract was a first among the UC system's 10 campuses.

In addition to the 25-acre UCSC Farm, consortium farms include the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, Coke Farm, Phil Foster Ranches, Happy Boy Farms, New Natives/Greensward Nurseries, and Swanton Berry Farm.

Serving sustainability

Over the past five years, UCSC Dining Services has taken a number of steps toward increased sustainability.

Read more »

Terminating the contract with Sodexo, creating an entirely new Dining Services department, developing purchasing guidelines, and forming a purchasing arrangement that met UC insurance, ordering, delivery, and invoicing requirements took "a lot of energy and work," said Galarneau. "But it felt great."

It was a starting point too, he said. "Ultimately, it doesn't do any good to have sustainable food in a dining hall and have a consumer base that doesn't know what that means. It's about a change of consciousness, not just a change of diet."

Opening the mind through the stomach

The campus purchases 85 percent of its organic produce through the Monterey Bay Organic Farmers Consortium, according to Candy Berlin, program coordinator for Dining Services (who is married to Dining director Scott Berlin). Produce, both conventional and organic, in total makes up 21 percent of the unit's $7.2 million food budget.

So how are the primary consumers-students-reacting to the campus's initiatives on sustainable food and reducing waste?

"Students are overwhelmingly looking for this in businesses they deal with and universities and colleges they come to," said Candy Berlin. "From the clothing manufacturers they buy from to the autos they choose, this generation wants to know that those companies are doing the right thing."

Change can be challenging, though. The kale and beets may be fresh, local, and organic, but these are students we're talking about. On a recent day at the College Eight Dining Hall, most diners carried plates of those iconic foods beloved by students through the generations: burgers, fries, and pizza.

Sustainable and organic foods are "there, but on the periphery," said Abraham Rivas, 20, a Merrill College history major who was eating lunch on a recent weekday at College Eight.

Rivas had taken a small scoop of that day's organic, local vegetable offering-sautéed green beans with roasted turnips and beets-but said he generally chooses foods based on flavor.

"Whether it's organic or not makes a difference, but mostly it's the taste," Rivas said.

One problem is educating students about the "seasonality" of foods, according to Scott Berlin. Students are used to seeing a huge array of foods in the marketplace and often do not understand that crops produced locally may be limited. But with ongoing education and marketing, the awareness of the relationship between food and the world we live in can only grow, he said.

On the waste front, each year Dining holds several "Zero Waste" events to bring attention to minimizing the campus's carbon footprint. Uneaten food scraps are collected during these events and weighed. From one recent audit, Dining learned that 106,050 pounds of potential food waste is created annually during the lunch period of just one of the five dining halls on campus.

These "waste audits" educate students on what taking more than they can really eat adds up to, said Scott Berlin.

"People are really disappointed during the audits when they see how much gets wasted," said fourth-year student Jennifer Pimentel, 22, who is serving an environmental services internship with College Eight.

And that leads to perhaps Dining Services' biggest opportunity of all: the chance to open thousands of young minds every year as the importance of minimizing human impact on the planet becomes increasingly urgent. The hope is that UCSC students will take what they learn at the dining halls out into the world and spread those ideals in a ripple effect.

Though organic foods are too expensive for him to purchase at the moment, student Rivas thinks his eating habits have changed during his years at UCSC.

"There are so many more things I'd like to try," Rivas said. "I'm definitely more open-minded-even to things that sound really bad, like tofu."