How Bama Dining fights for food sustainability

Corrie Wilson, Contributing Writer

In the push toward greater food sustainability, Bama Dining has led many of the food sustainability efforts on campus.

According to the United Nations, Sustainability is the idea that something (e.g., agriculture, fishing or even preparation of food) is done in a way that is not wasteful of natural resources and can be continued into the future without being detrimental to our environment or health.

Often, the idea of food sustainability conjures up mental images of leafy greens, vegan restaurants or miles of farmland in the Midwest. While those images are part of food sustainability, in reality, food sustainability is so much more than that. Composting, recycling, energy efficiency and nutrition each play a critical role in the overall production of food sustainability.

Bama Dining has steadily increased sustainability efforts, starting with recycling initiatives in 2006, where they began recycling plastic and metal as well as eliminating plastic trays from the eateries in the UA Student Center’s food court and dining halls. 

In 2009, Bama Dining launched its pre-consumer composting program. In this program, pre-consumer matter such as vegetable and fruit peels, or green matter, is delivered directly to the University of Alabama Arboretum, where it is mixed with the leaves, or brown matter, to produce rich compost.

Through the pre-consumer composting program, Bama Dining has reduced the impact to the local landfill, Eagle Bluff Landfill, by over 4,000 pounds per week, which is the number of pounds picked up from various dining locations.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how the University approached sustainability. Because of the pandemic, students were required to take their meals to go, which necessitated the move to disposables. 

Kristina Patridge, the director of University dining services, and Bruce McVeagh, the district manager of the Bama Dining administration, said the pandemic was a major obstacle in the efforts toward food sustainability. The initiatives surrounding food sustainability on campus were put in the back seat, but not forgotten, as the administration tried to feed thousands of students.

As time has passed, Bama Dining’s efforts toward food sustainability have experienced steady progress. 

The University of Alabama releases annual recycling statistics reports, which break down the types and amounts of materials that UA Recycling processes.

In those reports, Bama Dining’s recycling profile is divided into pounds of compost and pounds of grease. In the 2015 to 2016 recycling report, 1,555 pounds of compost were delivered to the Arboretum, while there were 87,476 pounds of grease used. 

Fast forward to the 2020 to 2021 annual recycling report: 17,930 pounds of compost were delivered to the Arboretum and 25,869 pounds of grease were used.

In essence, more fruits and vegetables were consumed, and less grease was used for cooking.

“Bama Dining guests have requested more fruits and vegetables, and Bama Dining has responded to those requests,” Patridge said. “There were also more venues constructed that do not include fried foods.” 

The issue of food sustainability also includes how sustainably those foods are prepared in terms of energy system usage. Bama Dining has directed efforts toward the study of sustainable energy usage in the dining options on campus.

Bama Dining has spearheaded the installation of the ultra-efficient kitchen hood systems manufactured by Melink. These kitchen hoods possess the highest energy efficiency and filter air and smoke to ultimately create a cleaner and safer environment that promotes healthier cooking practices.

In addition to this, they’ve introduced energy-efficient oven systems. On-campus dining places such as the Fresh Food Company, Panda Express and Chick-fil-A have started utilizing these energy-efficient cooking systems. 

The benefits of these systems are twofold: The environment benefits due to less gaseous pollutants and less energy waste, and the consumer benefits with healthier and safer food.

Bama Dining is interested in the shift toward more vegetarian and vegan options on campus. At Lakeside Dining Hall, there are stir-fry options and grilled vegetable options daily, as well as pho and other bowls offered at Glutinvs Minimvs. At Fresh Food Company, there is a dedicated vegetarian station with various grain bowls, hummus, crudités and a vegetable soup option daily.

McVeagh said that in the past, most of the options for on-campus dining were limited in terms of vegetarian and vegan selections. Now, it is becoming increasingly more common to see vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives such as burgers, sausages and more as the efforts continue to reduce meat consumption. 

As Bama Dining continues its efforts to reduce meat consumption and increase vegetarian and vegan options, the administration has sought to purchase products locally in the name of sustainability. As stated on the Bama Dining website, all Bama Dining managers are required to purchase locally grown and produced products whenever available. 

Bama Dining receives its locally sourced produce from FreshPoint. Bread is purchased from the local Flowers Bakery in Tuscaloosa, and milk is purchased from the local Dairy Fresh distributor

In addition to the local food purchasing, Bama Dining also provides fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee must meet strict international criteria, provide credit to farmers and give technical assistance to farmers. 

“Regulations and the high demand for resources make it nearly impossible to partner with a local farm, but produce does come from local producers,” McVeagh said. 

Due to the high volume of students at The University of Alabama, a local farm would not be able to sustain the food needs on campus. As a result, locally sourced produce is received from FreshPoint, which is North America’s largest wholly owned produce distributor

While it remains to be seen whether a local farm partnership is in Bama Dining’s future, for now, the administration plans to continue its efforts to purchase local.

The principal obstacle that Bama Dining faces in its food sustainability efforts is the funds that are needed to be sustainable.

Patridge and McVeagh said that due to the size of Alabama’s campus, it takes a significant amount of resources to be sustainable. With a campus of nearly 40,000 students, Bama Dining has the responsibility of feeding a small city, so to speak. Environmentally sustainable resources and products are generally more expensive than their unsustainable counterparts. 

McVeagh and Patridge said another obstacle is students’ lack of engagement in reducing food waste. Food sustainability is just as much about proper disposal as it is production and consumption.

They said the first step toward furthering the cause of food sustainability on campus begins with awareness. 

The efforts ideally need to be student-led, such as with student ambassadors. The students are the force behind The University of Alabama’s campus, and the fight for food sustainability is no exception. Being mindful of recycling and putting trash in the correct place are small things that ultimately can make a difference.

The University of Alabama Environmental Council understands how difficult it is to live sustainably on campus, especially as a freshman living in the dorms. However, students can still actively participate in sustainable practices despite challenging circumstances. 

“We are actively working to improve the sustainability on campus, whether it be through recycling practices, working with Bama Dining to reduce the amount of plastic in the dining halls, and, hopefully, to start a community garden on campus. If you are truly passionate for sustainability, it’s the place to be,” said Megan Neville, the co-director of social media for the organization and a freshman majoring in hospitality management.

In addition, the Environmental Council provides other ways in which students can become involved in the efforts towards sustainability.

“Other ways students can engage in sustainable practices on campus is to bring their own reusable utensils to the dining halls, use reusable bags at the grocery stores, ditch plastic water bottles for a reusable one, carpool or utilize the Crimson Ride buses, and consider reducing their meat and animal product consumption. It may seem silly to suggest such small, simple things, but once you start doing a few of them, your impact truly adds up,” Neville said.

McVeagh brought up the shopping cart model that the grocery store Aldi utilizes and how it represents, in his view, the ideal model of food sustainability. In this model, Aldi shoppers pay 25 cents to use carts, and then, when they return the cart, they receive their deposit back.

Such a model represents how consumers should treat the environment with respect, and this idea is the foundation for food sustainability. Without a healthy environment, food sustainability cannot thrive.

This story was published in the Environmental Edition. View the complete issue here.

Questions? Email the culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.