The University of California has revised and expanded its sustainability policy all the way to the dining room, mandating that 20 percent of all food purchased by 2020 come with a “sustainable” certification.
University Dining Services’ (UDS) website defines sustainability as “maintaining a delicate balance between the human need to improve lifestyle and feeling of well-being on one hand, and preserving natural resources and ecosystems on which we and future generations depend.”
The UC moved to strengthen its sustainability policy at the request of more than 10,000 postcards from students to the Board of Regents requesting sustainable food options, said Matt St. Clair, sustainability manager for the University of California Office of the President (UCOP).
Details for a sustainable food policy were then developed by a systemwide working group of more than 40 food service practitioners from each of the 10 UC campuses, that decided to refer the issue to the Real Food Challenge, a national student-led initiative to encourage all colleges and universities to switch to 20 percent sustainable food by 2020.
“Not all campuses were comfortable signing on,” St. Clair said, explaining the decision to mirror the Real Food Challenge. “But they wanted to set their own benchmark so that the UC, a leader in higher education, could have the same goals without officially committing.”
“Real” food, as the initiative calls it, is ethically produced with fair treatment of workers, equitable relationships with farmers and humanely treated animals. “Real” food is also grown without pesticides and leaves a minimal carbon footprint.
One stipulation of the UC’s new policy is that each campus must provide students with educational materials explaining the issues related to sustainable food products and food service business practices, and file a progress report with the UCOP.
The first checkpoint is Dec. 15, and officials indicate that UCD is doing well, said Dani Lee, sustainability manager for UDS.
“Preliminary research shows that 20 to 22 percent of our food purchases fall into the ‘sustainable foods’ criteria,” Lee said.
UDS decided what to purchase with the aid of a defined tier-system.
Tier one is food grown within a 50-mile radius of campus; tier two is food from within 150 miles; tier three is anything from inside 250 miles. California-grown is tier four, and grown in the USA is tier five.
However, Allen Doyle, sustainability manager for policy at Office of Resource Management and Planning, said that while buying local is a great first step, the argument isn’t that simple any more.
“If you live in Michigan in January, and you want a tomato, one grown in Mexico has less of a footprint than one grown in Michigan, a cold-weather zone that would require a greenhouse,” Doyle said. “On campus, this can be something as simple as removing trays from the dining commons, which University Dining Services has already done.”
UDS has been composting for years, but the UCOP regulations inspired a shift from pre-consumer composting to post-consumer composting said Linda Adams, UDS registered dietitian.
“You have to post-consumer, or ‘hot’ compost with animal products or anything that’s been in or near the consumer’s mouth to ensure the germs are killed,” she said. “We’re in our second academic year of post-consumer composting.”
Despite the early success, there is no easy answer about how to guarantee that the UC will be at 20 percent sustainability by 2020, according to Doyle.
“That’s one thing that’s really inspiring to me about how seriously the UC system takes this, they don’t go for the simple answers,” Doyle said. “There are lots and lots of ways to look at what sustainability is, and it’s exciting that complexity is being maintained.”
MIKE DORSEY can be reached at email@example.com.