Many of us shudder when we remember our college dorm food: rubbery macaroni, bone-dry chicken and the most tasteless excuse for "lasagna" ever dished out to paying customers. But that's changing, and today's college students expect something better. Students are also among the most engaged when it comes to caring about the environment, and more and more colleges are tapping into that energy, transforming ho-hum dining halls into happening centers for green education -- not to mention fresh, healthy food.
In an era in which fewer and fewer students are staying in the dorms (many are opting for apartment living, or -- gasp -- are choosing to live at home to save money), it also behooves schools to get with the times and offer something better than bland food and stale bagels. Going green can be a big selling point with today's talented youth, as this recent list of most eco-friendly colleges in America can attest.
In fact, there has been particular focus on the environmental impact of universities recently, some of which are as large as small cities, and consume comparable amounts of resources. The Princeton Review's recent honor roll of green colleges features top schools that are making the grade when it comes to sustainability, innovating with impressive energy-efficient buildings, reductions in pollution, "living machine" water treatment plants, solar power, bike-sharing and much more.
Here's a look at some of the creative ways colleges are greening up their food services. Perhaps what's most exciting is that, in many cases, it is the students themselves who are asking for fresh, local, organic and vegetarian foods, as well as composting and other sustainable programs. Oftentimes, school administrators scramble to keep up with a student body's calls for change.
New Haven, Connecticut
On the academic front, Yale needs no introduction. But what may be less well known is the Ivy's commitment to its pioneering Sustainable Food Project. The far-reaching program began in one of the university's "residential colleges," the Harry Potteresque Berkeley College. A few years ago, the center's dining hall became a test kitchen for local, organic and vegetarian food. It became extremely popular among students, and the movement has spread across the rest of the campus.
"How the food is purchased, how it is served, and how waste is managed are all part of a sophisticated and evolving system, and Yale has taken the lead in developing a model for other universities to follow," explains Yale spokesperson Dorie Baker. This includes a small organic farm in urban New Haven, as well as community service and education in the community. Students love the fresh, local food, and Berkeley College still must limit the number of non-residents that are admitted for meals.
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley has long been known for a revolutionary progressive spirit, so it's perhaps not so surprising that the school hosts America's first certified organic college dining hall. In addition to pesticide, hormone and GMO-free fare, the school's Crossroads cafeteria boasts a number of green features, including natural lighting, energy-efficient fixtures and low-flow water faucets. Tables are cleaned with cloth instead of paper, excess food is donated and scraps are composted locally.
All 10 UC campuses are on track to increase the use of low- and zero-emission vehicles by 50% by the year 2010, generate 10 megawatts of renewable energy by 2014, and achieve zero waste and carbon neutrality by 2020.
University of Washington
Located in famously green Seattle, the University of Washington runs a food service that emphasizes local, organic, fair trade and natural foods. The department is working toward a zero-waste goal, and scraps are composted. The school offers compostable dishware and to-go packaging, and is partnering with Coca-Cola and other partners on a pilot study for the first compostable paper cup designed specifically for soft drinks.
Down in Olympia, Washington, Evergreen State College also boasts some impressive green features, from dining services to a 13-acre organic farm, electric vehicles, 100% clean power and more.
Known as the home of green thinker David Orr and groundbreaking green buildings, Oberlin College is also host to a pioneering food service. An impressive 45% of annual food purchases made by the university are locally sourced, reducing "food miles." Students have a chance to meet and greet the local growers they're supporting through periodic fairs. The cafeterias went trayless in 2008, in order to discourage food waste and decrease energy and water use.
Oberlin's two main dining halls compost 100% of raw food kitchen prep. In 2007, the college composted 21,500 pounds of kitchen scrap. The school uses biodegradable packaging and has programs that promote reuse of mugs, bottles and bags. Once a week, Oberlin dining halls run a Low Carbon Initiative, which stresses foods with lower impact on the environment. Yet they still taste delicious!
Another school pushing for carbon neutrality is Vermont's picturesque Middlebury College, which recently made a big step toward that goal by opening a biomass heating plant. Middlebury's dining services have been implementing sustainable practices for years, including sizable purchases of local foods. The college also went tray-free to save energy and water. One dining hall even has a green roof, planted with grasses and other vegetation. This reduces heating and cooling costs and stormwater runoff, and provides habitat to wildlife.
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