Atlanta area universities show the way on food sustainability

One of the ways Emory University Hospital is making its food services sustainable is by purchasing local lettuce from Atlanta Harvest. (Mike Bacha)

One of the ways Emory University Hospital is making its food services sustainable is by purchasing local lettuce from Atlanta Harvest. (Mike Bacha)

You hear a lot of talk about “sustainability” these days.

Sustainability, in the food world, means considering the source of the food; its affordability and quality; how it’s grown; how the workers who grow, process and prepare the food are treated; how the food is packaged and transported; and so much more.

It’s one thing to say you’re sourcing things sustainably when you’re a restaurant serving 100 meals a day. It’s another when you’re serving thousands of meals, day in and day out.

In the Atlanta area, it’s our universities that are showing the way on food sustainability. And, what they’re finding is that it takes not only commitment, but creativity.

Peggy Barlett, chair of Emory University’s Sustainable Food Committee, remembers the original discussion. “When Emory University adopted sustainability as (a) fundamental principle almost 11 years ago, we assembled a visioning group to talk about what that would look like. The two physicians in the group said we had to include food,” she said.

The result was a goal that 75 percent of the food served at the university and hospital will be either locally grown or sustainably grown. “We hope in the next 10 years to meet that goal, and I think, by next year, in the campus dining hall, we’re going to reach the 50 percent mark,” Barlett said.

Keep in mind that Emory University’s dining services serve in the neighborhood of a million meals a year.

What meets the definition of “sustainable food” for Emory? It includes the sourcing — is it from Georgia or the eight-state region around us? Does it have recognized certification for its environmental, economic and animal welfare methods? Is it certified USDA organic? Grass-fed? Fair trade? Humanely raised?

Barlett said the vision to achieve these goals comes out of the values of Emory’s student body and administration. “I think higher education is leading the way, because we have a little more flexibility around being able to pilot or pioneer the supply chain changes. One of the things we really need are more small processing plants (to) handle local, organic and high quality food.”

That lack of processing capacity is a real stumbling block for the kitchens at Emory University Hospital. “We go through 800 pounds of diced onions a week. I can’t put a knife to 800 pounds of onions every week, so I really need someone who can supply that,” said Mike Bacha, executive chef for the hospital, whose kitchens prepare about 1,000 meals a day for the patients at the hospital as well as for those who eat in the cafeterias.

But, the hospital must balance the cost of sustainable food with the desire to meet its sustainability goal.

“Typically, when we come up with a proposal for something we want to switch to, we’re challenged to figure out how to pay for it,” said Kip Hardy, assistant director of the hospital’s Food and Nutrition Services. “One of the things Mike has done is, instead of buying preprocessed produce, we started cutting up things ourselves, like sweet potato wedges, yellow squash and zucchini. With the right items, it’s simple and not super time-consuming. Bringing in the produce whole, we can often save money. But, you have to balance that with the labor to turn it into something you can serve.”

Bacha said moving to a sustainable food model is tough in large settings. “We can buy beautiful lettuce that’s cheaper than processed product, but it comes in with the roots. You have to clean it and make sure it’s handled properly. You can’t just open a bag and serve it. Large corporations don’t want that much hands-on. It’s a ton of work.”

“We made the move to grass-fed beef for our meatloaf when we were able to save money by purchasing generic cereal instead of name brand,” Hardy said. “Now, we buy 1,500 pounds of grass-fed beef each month from White Oak Pastures. We’re trying to figure out how to save enough money that we can purchase grass-fed beef for our meat sauce. Sometimes, sustainable can save us money. We just switched to Java Vino as our coffee supplier, purchasing about 80 pounds of beans a week. It’s great coffee, and we’re paying less than we were before.”

At Kennesaw State University, Christian Hardigree is looking at food sustainability through the lens of her role as director of the Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality.

More than 1,400 students take classes in the school each semester. There are 280 students working toward a degree in culinary sustainability and hospitality, but nursing students, exercise science students, biology students and others take classes as well.

“Food service in Georgia is a big industry, with $18.9 billion in sales. And that doesn’t include what is served in hospitals, schools or assisted-care facilities, to name a few places,” Hardigree said. “One in 10 Georgians works in the restaurant (industry), and eight out of 10 restaurant owners started in entry-level jobs. The dynamic opportunities in the restaurant industry are unparalleled, and it’s key that we prepare students for these careers. Sustainability of food through sourcing is going to become more and more important as the population grows.”

Kennesaw State’s Commons serves as the program’s lab — 54,000 square feet where the university serves 5,000 to 7,000 meals a day. The school’s world cuisine class holds tasting panels in the Commons, and students present occasional cooking classes and demos. Students in the pop-up restaurant class work with the farming class to grow items they want for their menus.

“Sustainability, for us, means what’s on your plate, but also water and food waste. Nationally, we throw away about $165 billion in food each year,” Hardigree said.

To help bring that point home, the Commons is trayless, and food is served on small plates. “Students are welcome to take as many plates as they want, but our eyes are always bigger than our tummies, and, if we had a tray, we’d pile it up. By being trayless, we save on water, about 40,000 gallons each semester in not washing trays, and in food waste. At some point, your 11 plates of food become embarrassing.”

Each year brings these institutions a little closer to their goals. And, in the process, they’re inspiring the next generation of food industry professionals.