In light of the Meatless Monday event held April 18 in Driscoll and Friday’s Earth Day dinner in Towne Field House, the question of sustainable dining practices and whether the College is and even should be supporting such an initiative has become a controversial issue across campus. According to Bob Volpi, director of dining services, sustainability is and will continue to be a focus of the College’s Dining Services department, but not at the cost of continuing to provide students with quality service or affordable prices.
Current efforts in sustainability
According to Volpi and Katharine Millonzi, sustainable food program manager for the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, the College defines sustainability in food products in a variety of ways. “We look at local, fair trade and organic, with local being within 250 miles. Over the past several years we have focused on a smaller area,” he said. “Local grass-fed beef, occasionally, is purchased – we consider that being sustainable.” Volpi cited close relationships with farms in the community, such as the Berkshires’ own High Lawn Farm, Peace Valley Farm and Ioka Valley Farm. The College is also a member of Berkshire Grown, a support organization for local producers and purchasers, Volpi said.
Millonzi agreed with Volpi’s criteria for sustainability, also adding “ecological certification and social justice components” to the list. While the definition of sustainable is still generally undefined, Millonzi pointed out that “these criteria mirror the standards used in many schools and organizations.”
“I have been working with Dining Services to source from local food producers and spend their … budget on regionally and ecologically produced food,” Millonzi said. “My program worked with Dining Services to define our criteria for ‘sustainable food’ and then undertook a data analysis, which measured our current purchases against these criteria.” Currently, 10 percent of all food purchased by Dining Services is considered sustainable.
Volpi pointed out that the College’s commitment to local businesses adds to Dining Services’ relative strength in terms of sustainability: “Without an industry standard, it’s really hard to say, ‘Is 10 percent low?’” Volpi said. “[However], our peer institutions don’t have the contracts and the commitments that we have, especially with dairy and especially with a local farm like Peace Valley.”
Many at the College have expressed concern that Dining Services is spending extravagantly on organic, local and sustainable foods in the face of College-wide budget cuts; there has also been concern that the program has been hampered or cut back in the face of the economic downturn.
Volpi remained adamant that sustainability is one of Dining Services’ main commitments. “When we were looking at budget planning, there were no cuts that were made that would interfere with [this initiative],” he said. “Our dedication and commitment to keeping this program together really was proven during some tough times.” While switching to a national dairy provider instead of using local producers such as Peace Valley Farm to supply the College’s needs would have saved a small amount, Volpi said that the relatively insignificant savings were not enough to convince the College that weakening its relationship with Peace Valley and other local producers was the right decision.
In terms of concerns regarding excessive spending on sustainable foods, Volpi was quick to clarify that cutting back on sustainability would not have been helpful in terms of Dining Services’ budget. “The reductions we were looking [to make] were much greater,” Volpi said. “A closure of a dining hall is much greater than taking away a program because we need to buy a product regardless of where it’s coming from.” Volpi used the example of switching dairy providers to illustrate his point: While switching to a national provider would have saved the College two to five percent on its dairy purchases, that amount would have totaled approximately $5000, not nearly as much in savings as closing Dodd and Greylock dining halls brought in.
Recent sustainability-related initiatives
Over the past few weeks, sustainability initiatives have been at the forefront of dining in the form of both Meatless Monday on April 18 and Friday’s Earth Day dinner, which was comprised entirely of locally-grown foods including local vegetables, grass-fed beef and hook-and-line cod. According to Amelia Simmons ’13, a point person for the Meatless Monday program and an intern at the Zilkha Center, both meals met with overwhelmingly positive student response.
“It was really positive,” Simmons said of the first Meatless Monday. “One of the ladies swiping cards at [Driscoll] … told students very openly that there wouldn’t be meat at the meal, and it was really cool because all up and down the stairs cheers erupted and students were really excited. Students who went to the meal were really excited about it and were aware.” She also recounted an interaction with a student who hadn’t even realized that her meal was meat-free, though she did say that the food was delicious.
Meatless Mondays was an initiative spearheaded by Simmons, Millonzi and Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining. The three focused closely on publicizing the April 18 dinner in order to avoid negative student backlash, according to Simmons. “The main reservation that Dining [Services] had was that it had to be really, really well-publicized and tied with the environmental reasoning, showing students how not eating meat for one day directly reduces Williams’ carbon footprint,” Simmons said. The Monday before Earth Week was therefore decided upon as a good trial date because of the increased visibility of environmental issues during that time.
Millonzi expressed enthusiastic support for the Meatless Mondays program. “The Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program’s mission is to work both operationally and educationally on food and agriculture issues on campus and globally,” she said. “Certainly educating both students and administration of the economic, environmental and social implications of industrial meat production is a main thrust of our program.”
People responded equally as well to Friday’s Earth Day dinner, which is an annual event. “[People] walked out saying it was the best meal they’d had at Williams,” Simmons said.
Dining Services is not looking to institutionalize any large changes in the near future, according to Volpi, and instead is planning to continue working within the existing framework of relationships with local farmers in order to expand the sustainable foods program.
Andrea Lindsay ’13, one of a number of students on the Food Committee, echoed Volpi’s statements, saying that while the committee is not working on any specific initatives, small changes such as labeling of local foods have recently been implemented. “We’ve also talked more generally about increasing the amount of local food in the dining halls, but not as part of an official program,” she said. Lindsay also mentioned increased labeling of local foods and the integration of a number of new vegetarian and vegan recipes as small, recently instituted changes.
The College will, however, be adding a host of new vegetarian and vegan recipes to its repertoire. Following staff workshops with vegan chef Ken Bergeron just before spring break, Dining Services has begun the process of integrating Bergeron’s recipes into its database for use in dining halls. “If we’re going to do things right with fresh vegetables, I think the best recipes you’re going to find are going to be in a vegetarian cookbook,” Volpi said. “Having someone like Ken Bergeron, a well-known vegan chef and author, helping us, enter[ing] his recipes into our database, accomplished two things: It gives us the best possible recipe for a fresh vegetable, and it also helps with a vegan or a vegetarian entrée.”
As for substantially increasing the percentage of purchased food that is considered sustainable, Volpi said that it would likely take time and a change in policy. “It depends on whether or not we want to open up the radius of 250 miles, because there are farms that believe in better environmental practices [elsewhere],” he said. “So if the farm is out in the Midwest and they believe in sound environmental practices that we believe in, then buying that product from this cooperative would definitely be something to consider.”
Under the current system, Volpi admits that becoming entirely sustainable isn’t likely. “There’s no way that … we could ever sustain a program that would hold us to 250 miles and be fully supportive for all our needs,” he said. “To really get the manufacturers to really believe in the practice of how food is grown or raised is something that we should enforce and require from our vendors.”
“What we are working towards is the food viability and security of the College and our community as a whole,” Millonzi said. “Harnessing institutional purchasing is one of the most powerful tools available for shifting patterns of food production and consumption in a more sustainable direction … There are many ways we could and should increase the 10 percent sustainable food purchases to 30 to 40 percent in the coming years, with the College’s commitment to do so.”
Further student initiatives
Meatless Mondays in particular is an initiative that Simmons and Dining Services both would like to see continue. Simmons stated that the staff at Driscoll is very excited about the prospect of continuing the event, and staff members have even begun soliciting vegetarian recipes from students in the hopes of having a student recipe-based Meatless Monday before the end of the year. “It’s a really nice collaborative process between dining and students,” Simmons said. “It’s a learning process for the whole campus, what a meal without meat can be and why it’s beneficial to the environment, why it’s beneficial to your health.”
Simmons also made it clear that Meatless Mondays is “not trying to force vegetarianism,” but instead is trying to change “meat culture by making people more aware of the implications that a meat-based diet has.”
In the future, the program could be expanded to include two meatless dining halls, for an “opt-out system, not an opt-in,” according to Simmons. Other possibilities include monthly and eventually biweekly Meatless Mondays, as well as potentially redirecting saved funds from a meatless meal to purchasing more sustainable local foods for other meals. Such sustainable foods could theoretically include anything from Berkshire-grown vegetables to grass-fed beef. “Meatless Mondays is not against meat per se,” Simmons pointed out. “It’s against the excessive meat consumption, and particularly against conventionally-raised meat.”
All of these developments are still in the preliminary stages, according to Simmons. While College Council has expressed interest in helping to continue the Meatless Mondays program and Dining Services is also open to the idea, more student feedback needs to be solicited and more planning needs to take place before changes and further developments take place.
Simmons also pointed out that while she is excited about redirecting saved funds from meatless dinners to the purchase of more sustainable foods, more data needs to be collected and analyzed to determine whether Dining Services can save a significant amount of money on meatless dinners and whether that money can and should be used for more food purchases.
Students and Dining Services are in agreement regarding sustainable foods, according to Lindsay. “Students are definitely interested in seeing more local and organic food in the dining halls,” she said. “The Dining Services representatives on the committee are very receptive, but they also try to keep us aware of the constraints they’re dealing with in terms of costs and what’s available from suppliers. In my experience, it seems like they definitely want to make Williams dining sustainable, but they need continued student support and initiative to keep moving in that direction.”
Millonzi emphasized the importance of continuing to promote sustainability on campus. “We must not frame sustainability as a trend,” she said. “What we are working towards is the food viability and security of the College and our community as a whole.”
Simmons stressed that if students really want to see the College’s dining halls serving more sustainable food, all they have to do is ask: “If students really push for it, [Dining Services] would do it faster,” she said. “Dining wants to do it, they’re ready to, but they’re not going to unless the students really push and demand for better-quality, more local organic foods.”