Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations On Campus)

Just EAT

Students at Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, PA, are increasing how much they E.A.T. in the dining hall. No, they’re not consuming more. In fact, the changes have drastically decreased food waste.

Instead, students are going through the E.A.T. Program to help Engage, Analyze and Transform the eating habits of everyone on campus to promote a more sustainable model. The program links the academic mission of the college with Metz Culinary Management to transform the dining hall into an extension of the classroom.

“The research performed by students in E.A.T. has two main goals,” says Robert Valgenti, associate professor of philosophy and director of the E.A.T Program. “The first is to improve the dining experience for students and the second is to dissolve the boundaries between the dining and academic spaces on campus. Students spend several hours each day in the dining facilities. There’s no reason why this time can’t also be utilized in their education.”

Challenges and Savings

One of the greatest challenges facing dining services is getting students to better understand their eating habits and how to make choices that are beneficial for themselves and sustainable for the environment. It’s not always easy for students who suddenly make all of the decisions about their diet by themselves.

“Transitioning from eating at home and eating on your own is a big challenge,” Valgenti says. “Students go from having most of their meals planned by their parents to having complete control over what they eat and when they eat it. Often, they don’t recognize what is healthy and they don’t recognize that being wasteful with food still has consequences, even when they’re not paying per dish.”

Research projects all have the same core goal of creating solid data to influence change in the cafeteria. In just one year, it is having serious impact on curbing food waste and making the dining hall a leaner operation.

According to Bill Allman, general manager and director of sustainability for Metz, the E.A.T. Program helped lower the cost per meal at LVC from $2.54 to $2.44. Over the course of more than 416,000 meals, that translates to a savings of $39,165.38.

To measure the effects the awareness campaign was having, LVC junior Ashley Smith compared and contrasted edible food waste over the course of the semester. As students learned more, waste declined dramatically. Edible food waste per person was reduced by 19 percent, keeping an estimated 25,432 pounds of food out of landfills.

Integrated Learning

The program began by receiving a grant from LVC’s President’s Innovation Fund to help faculty members develop new ways to implement high-impact learning experiences for students. Research conducted by students is not just for the sake of the project, but also influences decisions on how Metz can best serve the student population.

The partnership with Metz has worked so well at LVC that the dining service provider hopes to replicate the E.A.T. Program at several other institutions, now that the successful model is in place.

“E.A.T. has helped inspire me personally,” says Allman. “The most important reason for students to join this initiative is to be good stewards of our most important resource: food. By taking small sustainable steps, we can keep working toward a better world.”

The E.A.T. Program is available as a for-credit offering, but it’s having a deeper impact on the campus beyond those enrolled in the course. This spring, freshmen Corey Kuchinsky and Zach Kirby noticed another opportunity for the institution to serve the community. The two coordinated with Metz and with the Office of Community Service to create an ongoing system to donate unused food to Palmyra Area Cooperating Churches Caring Cupboard. Food that was previously thrown away can now serve a genuine purpose in the region, as 30 to 40 pounds of food are delivered twice per week to provide complete meals of meats, vegetables and starches to families in need.

In June 2014, members of the E.A.T. Research Group traveled to Burlington, VT, to present at the Collaboration and Innovation Across the Food System Conference. Two students presented the research they had conducted, and the E.A.T. Group overall held a roundtable discussion to talk about the impact of the program.

“This is an international conference for food professionals and academics in the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, so having Ashley Smith and Anthony Feudale present as undergraduate students is very impressive,” Valgenti says. “The group session provided great feedback from the attendees. There are plenty of sustainability models out there in the industry, but what got people excited was the connection between dining services and academic research. That’s the core of the E.A.T. Program.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Jeff Canning, a writer and editor for Dick Jones Communications, previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Record in Wooster, OH, where he covered a variety of beats, including school districts, various communities and the local court system.

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