Growing Local Roots

Students Find More Sustainable Food Options on Campus

 By Joe Stando

 

University Dining Services and a new student-run café respond to students’ request for sustainable, healthy foods.

 

Jen Nummerdor, a junior at Western Michigan University and a pescetarian, only eats seafood, fruits and vegetables.  She said she lives on campus and tries to eat healthy, organic vegetarian food, but it isn’t always easy.

 

“It’s really unfortunate,” Nummerdor said.  “The dining halls don’t have a lot of vegetarian options, especially in terms of getting protein.  That’s part of why I started eating seafood on campus.  Otherwise I have to go buy stuff myself.”

Nummerdor is one of a number of students who have expressed frustration with WMU’s on-campus dining options.  She abstains from meat for both health and environmental reasons.

 

“It’s a sustainability issue for me,” Nummerdor said.  “Meat production on an industrial level involves a lot of water waste.  Plus, these animals are raised is really close quarters and pumped full of antibiotics.  I don’t want to be putting all of that into my body.”

 

Nummerdor also said she has had trouble identifying whether or not items are locally sourced or vegetarian.

 

WMU Dining Services is aware of the student complaints and is actively working to promote sustainability, both in and out of the kitchen.

 

“We have a number of sustainability projects,” said Dining Services Director Judy Gipper.  “We serve a variety of locally sourced products on a daily basis within the dining halls.”  

 

Gipper said that Dining Services defines locally sourced as being from the Great Lakes region, produced within 150-250 miles of WMU’s main campus in Kalamazoo.  According to a study by Gordon’s Food Service, roughly 35 percent of Dining Services’ food qualifies as locally sourced.

 

Gipper noted that Western Grounds, an employee-owned business in Lansing, Mich., provides fair trade, organic coffee to the dining halls, cafes and coffee shops on campus.

 

“The Western Grounds coffee is a little more expensive for us to buy, but it’s worth it,” Gipper said.  “It’s a good fit, from a social justice standpoint.”

 

In addition to regular options, Dining Services hosts annual events that showcase local farms and their products.  These Farmers’ Market Luncheons are held each fall and include items from farms all over West Michigan.

 

“We’ve been doing these for a couple of years, and they’ve been a big success,” Gipper said.  “We have to plan them out far in advance because our chef actually has to take a truck out and pick up the items from the farms himself.  They’re smaller farms, so they’re not equipped for industrial work.”

 

Nummerdor agreed that campus initiatives that focus on the use of local foods are worthwhile.

“It’s nice to see WMU supporting local businesses like that as opposed to big factory farms,” Nummerdor said, “but I wish it happened more often.”

 

Dining Services has also altered their operating procedures to become more sustainable, Gipper said.

“We’re part of a food diversion program with the Department of Agriculture,” Gipper said.  “Our pre-consumer vegetable waste, like carrot tops and melon rinds, goes to farms and is used to feed hogs.  We have to keep a lot of records and run special training sessions to make sure our waste is still usable.”

 

In addition to the food diversion program, Dining Services has implemented a number of procedures and appliances, such as more efficient dishwashers and a pulper for some food waste.

 

“We’ve even switched over the type of oil we use to one which can be reused to power Landscape Services’ lawnmowers,” said Gipper.  “We’re working with the Office for Sustainability on that project so we’re not exactly sure when it will happen, but we’re ready on our end.”

 

Students on campus have been working to provide their own dining alternative for WMU students.  The Campus Beet is a Registered Student Organization dedicated to creating a sustainable, locally sourced student-run café on WMU’s campus.

 

“We want to make healthy, organic food available to students,” said group member Michelle Tomasko. “It builds a sense of community.”

 

The Campus Beet is currently taking its first steps towards an ongoing café.  

 

“We’re a little ways off from a full-scale café, but we’re in the process of expanding,” Tomasko said.  “We work with the People’s Food Co-Op of Kalamazoo and local farms, including Blue Dog Greens and the Student Garden Association, to provide local foods.  We also work with [WMU] Bernhard Center’s catering staff to run logistics.”

WMU’s Office for Sustainability advises the group, but the Beet’s funding comes primarily through grants.

 

“[The Campus Beet] allows you to know where your food is coming from,” Tomasko said.  “You know the farmers. You know how you’re helping the local economy.  I hope it inspires even more students to create similar initiatives.”

 

Nummerdor said she sees the new café as a step in the right direction.

 

“I really love all of the progress the Campus Beet has made so far,” she said.  “I’m glad they avoid mass-produced foods, and I’d love to see a sustainable café or even dining hall in the future.  It’d take some work, but it’s definitely attainable.”