It’s not easy being green

By Alison Hewitt
Originally published by UCLA Today

dining hall eatersStaffers Robert Gilbert and Rebecca Miller, both sustainability gurus for UCLA's student housing and dining, are always working on new ways to make campus dining halls greener.

The signs of this revolution are subtle but pervasive. Sometimes it’s what you don’t see, like meatless Mondays at the Reagan UCLA Medical Center cafeteria, less Styrofoam at campus restaurants and students balancing plates without trays in the dining halls.

On the Hill, where Housing and Hospitality Services runs the dining halls, Dining Services is composting 60 tons of food annually. An organic herb garden supplying occasional harvests for students’ meals has doubled in size. And “Beefless Thursdays” and vegetarian options at every food station encourage students to eat lower on the food chain.

In campus restaurants, compostable plates and utensils are gaining ground, vendor contracts have been renegotiated to reduce or eliminate Styrofoam, and an organic salad bar dominates Ackerman Union’s food court.

The dining halls' salad bars always include at least a couple of organic items. The grilled tofu, above, is always organic.In the cafeterias of UCLA Health System’s Westwood and Santa Monica medical campuses, all flatware and food waste get composted. Much of the produce and dairy are locally sourced to reduce pollution from transportation. And Meatless Monday signs encourage customers to steer clear of the burgers and head for the fish or salad instead. The cafeterias have also raised the price of soda and dropped the price at the salad bars. Last May, they even removed all the deep-fryers – so no more chicken fingers or French fries.

On campus and especially on the Hill, the conversion to green isn’t done by staff alone: Students are playing a role in the transformation, in part through classroom Action Research Teams and Team Green projects in the dorms that help students connect with staff to solve sustainability problems.

“It’s really important to have the students behind any major changes we make,” said Robert Gilbert, the sustainability manager for Housing and Hospitality Services. “This is what they eat every day. It should be the food they want.”

student carrying a tray"Dine tray-free," suggest signs next to stacks of trays. Above, this frat brother carefully stacks his plates to forego trays. One student program measured food waste, then helped the dining halls move toward more self-service items so students wouldn’t end up with more food than they could eat. A chef introduced beefless Thursdays since cows are among the most energy-intensive animals to raise. Students were carefully surveyed to measure their support before the program spread to most dining halls. The trayless program, encouraging students to help save dishwashing water by carrying their plates without using cafeteria trays, started as a pilot program in one dining hall only until student approval grew and voluntarily spread. “Dine tray-free!” signs cajole above each stack of trays.

These are changes that sophomore Charlotte Rose, the Team Green coordinator for her dorm, wholeheartedly approves of. Rose hosted a sustainable-food appreciation event for her dorm mates, offering samples from Trader Joes and playing games to illustrate how much water it takes to raise beef versus other sources of protein.

“When they saw how much water and energy it took, they were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Rose said. “The dining halls have been so helpful. Going trayless means people pick up less food all at once, and it’s been so useful. There’s also a lot more vegan and vegetarian choices than there used to be.”

girls tray freeWhen students forgo trays, as these undergrads did, it not only saves water and reduces food waste, but opens up more space on the table for a more comfortable experience, Gilbert said. At least half the diners forego trays now, said Gilbert, saving a gallon of water for every five trays, and cutting down on food waste, too. Students now dine on organic tofu, cage-free eggs, and tea and coffee with fair-trade sugar, said Rebecca Miller, housing’s sustainability analyst.

Just two years ago, Miller was one of the UCLA students working with Gilbert to make the dining halls greener. When she was hired, she worked with more students to develop a list of local farms. So for the past two summers, the dining halls have had locally sourced, organic fruit supplementing their usual fare, she said.

It wasn’t easy to find local farms that met UCLA’s vendor standards and reliably provide enough food for a dining system that serves 10,000 students and plans meals three months ahead of time, Miller said.

“I was looking at dozens of farms within 250 miles to find the right ones,” the sustainability analyst said.

plates galoreOne student — with an apparently terrific metabolism — made multiple trayless trips to deliver two salads, three pasta bowls, burrito and a chunk of cheesecake to his table — and that's before leaving his table to get more. Not every initiative succeeds, though. A pilot program for an all-organic salad bar didn’t draw enough students to warrant the expense, said Gilbert.

While they still offer a few organic items at the salad bar, there are so many things students want, and so little room in the budget, Gilbert said. “We really try to focus on things we can do on a large scale within the budget.”

“I’d like to see more organic options, but I don’t see a lot of demand for it,” admitted Robert Nguyen, a sophomore and the Team Green coordinator for his dorm. “The dining halls are very open to student feedback. They’ve added more vegetarian and vegan food, more gluten-free food and even fair-trade sugar."

One powerful way students make their choices known to housing and dining staff is the weekly Policy Review Board meetings. “A lot of it is about specific items: more of that soup, or that Korean barbecue is too spicy,” Miller said. “But they also talk about sustainability. Last year, a student mentioned that he’d seen fair-trade sugar in packets and asked why we didn’t have them.”

After staff looked into it, the switch was made within a week. Now that’s influence.