UI Dining Services uses local, sustainable sources

By Steffie Drucker

Johns Hopkins University recently signed on to the Real Food Challenge, pledging to have 35 percent of its ingredients and food products come from local, sustainable, humane and fair-trade sources by 2020. Though the University of Illinois has not formally signed on to this challenge, it strives to provide students with sustainable and locally grown ingredients and food products in its dining facilities.

“In addition to it being the right thing to do, Hopkins takes a stand to be an active member in the city of Baltimore,” William Connor, director of Dining Programs at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email. “By buying local food, we support the local farmers and in turn support the city in which we reside.”

The University of Illinois follows a similar practice.

“Our students have entrusted us with the resources of paying for their meal plans and we need to reflect their values in the way that we are using those meal plan dollars,” said Dawn Aubrey, director of Dining Services at the University. “We need to purchase in a way that they would purchase if they were preparing their own meals.”

In choosing where to purchase from, Aubrey said Dining Services looks at a variety of factors, including the product’s processing point in relation to its production site, methodology of transport, whether the pricing is fair for both the University and the vendor, and the source’s practices in regard to growing or raising the product.

When looking at where products are produced and processed, the University prefers to purchase within 150 miles, and its ideal is within 100 miles, Aubrey said. Before the drought of 2012, which greatly affected producers both within this radius and across the country, 17 percent of purchases were within 100 miles and 26 percent of purchases could be defined as local, she said.

“Local is good, but what we’re ultimately committed to is sustainable,” Aubrey said. “Even though it’s local, it’s got to meet the criteria for sustainable practices.”

Currently, 70 percent of food purchases are sustainable, Aubrey said.

Many of the vendors Dining Services purchases from use organic practices like using water sparingly and using all-natural pest control methods, even though they may not necessarily be organic certified.

One of the University’s suppliers that is both local and sustainable is the 5-year-old Sustainable Student Farm. The farm produces a myriad of products ranging from salad greens and tomatoes to romanesco and bok choy.

While Prairie Farms is the University’s prime dairy vendor, Dining Services actually obtains 686,000 gallons of milk from cows on campus. Additionally, the Meat Sciences Laboratory provided Dining Services with 500 head of cattle last year, and another facility, the Food Preservation Lab, is beginning to research methods of food preservation.

“If we, as good citizens of Illinois, want to extend what we buy as far as Illinois products, then I think food preservation is the next step that needs to be made,” said Chris Henning, senior assistant director of Dining Services.

Sustainability goes beyond the production, purchasing and preparation of food, however. The University has introduced a number of other measures to ensure that the dining halls are sustainable.

The University was the first Big Ten school to go trayless in fall 2010. Dining Services uses a system called LeanPath to monitor and reduce pre-consumer food waste and uses EnviroPure technology to dispose of post-consumer food waste. Any pre-consumer leftovers are posted on a website called zeropercent.us, a website developed by a University alumnus that allows local agencies to retrieve the unused food to reduce waste. Dining Services is also the only unit currently recycling glass.

In addition to these measures reducing food waste, they have also saved money and time for Dining Services.

“We were having to go through the process of calling the Salvation Army or the Times Center to get them to pick up products and sometimes they didn’t have the space, the personnel or the vehicles and we’d be stuck with the product,” Henning said. “We haven’t had that with ZeroPercent. We’ve had 100 percent of our products picked up at this point.”

Steffie can be reached at [email protected]

Clarification: In the Dec. 5, 2013, edition of The Daily Illini, the article “UI Dining Services uses local, sustainable sources” stated that 686,000 gallons of milk are collected from on-campus cows. Prairie Farms is the only company to have a contract with and handle the University’s dairy products. The milk is collected and processed by Prairie Farms and sold back to the University. The Daily Illini regrets the error.