What the future of sustainable dining looks like at Oakland University
When it comes to sustainability, Evol Gazzarato believes society has a lot of work to do. But she believes it’s work that can be done.
Gazzarato is Chartwells’ resident district manager at Oakland University, which recently underwent a food waste-reduction certification process.
The Michigan university’s three dining halls received a gold level certification for food-waste prevention from The Pledge on Food Waste. Detroit-based nonprofit Make Food Not Waste brought The Pledge, a Singapore-based assessment and benchmarking tool, to the U.S.
To receive its high level of certification, Oakland had to meet 95 different criteria under seven pillars. Gazzarato said the process took about a year to complete and included documentation, research and partnering with community and campus groups. It also involved tracking back-of-house as well as plate waste, with the goal of sending zero food waste to the landfill.
For Gazzarato, The Pledge helped her see that being sustainable is attainable.
“We’ve helped the students learn about their plate waste and what that does to the planet and how they can change their behaviors,” she said. “If we can do it on this huge scale, this monster that we have at a university level, I think it really shows that anyone can make these changes.”
Chris Reed, director of Oakland’s student center, said that The Pledge certification highlighted both Oakland’s accomplishments and areas for improvement. Reed, who is on the university’s sustainability leadership team, noted that the process helped him see where the university needs to go in the future, and he has a lot of ideas to make that happen.
Here’s a look at what the university did to receive the gold certification and its plans to make the future of dining more sustainable.
Oakland recently established a sustainability leadership team, something it had tried to do in the past but didn’t really take off. Now, the team spearheads the school’s sustainability efforts and works with its foodservice provider, Chartwells Higher Education, on those initiatives.
Chartwells uses a program called WasteNot to track and prevent back-of-house waste, and the university also sends food scraps to a third-party composting company.
As a part of The Pledge process, Oakland also began to track and compost plate waste. The student response was divided, according to Gazzarato, who said students are split between being very passionate about sustainability and feeling more passive on the issue.
However, most students were willing to learn, she said.
“One of the things that I loved the most was watching the students learn through it and their reactions when they saw how much the waste in general from the dining halls was plate waste,” she said. “Really teaching them to think about what they’re putting on their plate and remembering that if they’re still hungry, they can go back for more.”
Reed agreed. “I think it’s kind of like that learning curve from the students we didn’t initially hear from, the more passive to sustainability efforts. In the dining hall, we started collecting plate waste. Some students felt like [we] were guilting them into feeling like they were doing something wrong.”
Reducing food waste is just one of area of sustainability that the university focuses on; moving away from materials like Styrofoam is another initiative, and one that Reed has spearheaded.
Reed noted that when he first began working at the university six years ago, some dining locations still used Styrofoam products, which are slow to biodegrade.
“I really don’t like Styrofoam, I think it’s an easy way for us to move toward a more sustainable operation, at least from the retail perspective,” he said.
While compostables can be a good alternative to single-use plastics, Reed noted that compostables often end up in the landfill anyway, which has led the university to lean into reusables.
Reed also considers offering a diverse range of foods part of the university’s sustainability efforts, noting that the school recently added a restaurant that serves halal meat.
“It’s always just trying new things, seeing how they work out and having a diverse menu available,” he said.
One big challenge the university has wrestled with is expanding its reusable program.
The team has done a lot of work in that avenue, including a recent partnership with Topanga.io, a reusable container company that provides the university with tracking mechanisms. And soon, Oakland students will be able to use reusable containers in its retail stores. The program hasn’t fully launched but is slowly being rolled out over the summer term.
Reed said there are a lot of factors to consider when launching such an initiative: “How do you actually run the program? How do you make sure you have the space to actually store those items? Because they take up a lot of space at the checkout counter, compared to some of the disposables we have. How do you source the right size container?”
Still, he believes the program has the potential to expand into the university’s catering offerings.
“How do we take catering to a zero-waste type operation if an individual wants to do that for their event?” Reed added.
The university has also moved away from using disposable straws by only offering them in dining halls when an individual requests it. The team has also sourced different types of straws after paper straws didn’t go over well with the student base.
“Now, we’re actually looking at multiple versions of compostable straws,” he said. “We have one version that we used currently, but we’ve looked at other options that are compostable and are more rigid and feel like your plastic straw.”
Another area for improvement Reed sees is around composting. In the future, he’d like to see composting done on-site rather than being sent off to a third-party company.
“Whether it’s machines or products that actually take the food waste and turn it into usable dirt, per lack of better term, in 24 to 48 hours. And we’ve been exploring some of those options. And how we can use those on campus,” he said.
One challenge Gazzarato sees in the future is the cost of some of these sustainability projects.
“For us, doing the right thing, we tend to not look at the cost as much. But it still needs to be a factor,” she said. “For any type of a foodservice establishment, I think that’s one of the biggest hinderances for sustainability is the cost.”