An independent liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College takes its motto, "The College and the Common Good," to heart in all departments, including and perhaps especially in dining services. Known for high quality that consistently lands it at or near the top of the Princeton Review's annual ranking of best college food, Bowdoin's dining program touts not only great eats but a pacesetting, comprehensive portfolio of sustainability initiatives as well.
"Green" before it was cool, Bowdoin's commitment to environmentally friendly operations traces back 20 years when the foodservice department worked with students on a worm composting project. Since then, it has become increasingly sustainable with initiatives that include maximizing its use of local products, extensive waste-reduction measures, and growing its own organic garden. Says Michele Gaillard, associate director of operations, "Sustainability now informs practically every operational decision we make."
No scattershot approach to sustainability, Bowdoin's is carefully thought out, multifaceted and documented in a written mission statement that outlines key "environmental commitments." A dining services' Environmental Committee created in 2003 helps to ensure the department upholds the commitments. Among them:
- Bowdoin Dining will make department decisions considering relevant environmental and sustainability issues. Through our Environmental Committee we will advocate action and monitor our adherence to departmental environment policies. We will select and monitor "best practice" sustainability indicators suitable for Bowdoin Dining operations as a method for tracking performance improvement.
- To promote a sustainable economy in Maine and New England, Bowdoin Dining will use all reasonable efforts to utilize affordably priced local and renewable products that reflect the college's commitment to sustainability.
- To reduce waste, Bowdoin Dining will use all reasonable efforts to decrease consumption and purchase reusable, recyclable and biodegradable products when available.
- To complete the loop of recycling products, Bowdoin Dining will use all reasonable efforts to purchase products with recycled content when available and conduct vigorous recycling programs.
- Among the most impactful moves made toward living up to these umbrella commitments, according to Gaillard, is its partnership with Farm Fresh Connections, a formerly state-sponsored (now private) initiative to create markets for local produce. "In 2003, our department created an Environmental Committee to develop the partnership and formulate the process, along with a local hospital and a couple of other institutions in the area. It's run by a local woman who works with about 30 farms. She gathers information about what products they have and what's coming up and provides foodservice operations with lists of what's available. We're able to place one order with her. She sources the order and delivers it. So we make one call, get one delivery. It has vastly improved our ability to utilize local produce."
- So, too, has the Bowdoin Organic Garden. Created by a group of committed students in 2005, the garden has become a successful, sustained effort thanks to Bowdoin dining services. "The initial inspiration came from students, but this department has provided the structure and continuity that has made the program successful," Gaillard says. "We look at it as an additional dining operation that must be supported by the entire department. There has been a natural trajectory that has progressed from one garden plot to two, two plots to three. Every year the garden has become more connected to the academic and social fabric of the college and bears unambiguous fruits that represent the college's commitment to sustainability."
- Funding for a garden manager, a salaried employee, comes through the dining services department, which also funds a garden assistant and two student interns. The benefits received back from the garden, in the value of the produce itself and beyond, are well worth the cost, Gaillard says.
- The gardening staff maintains close ties with the culinary team, visiting the kitchen every day and letting the cooks know what's being harvested and coming in the next day. They deliver the produce directly to the kitchen, washed and sorted in bins provided by dining services.
- "Being in Maine, it can't supply us year-round, but during the growing seasons we get a huge variety of produce from the garden — zucchini, greens, tomatoes, squashes, potatoes, pumpkins, eggplant, chard, radishes, herbs, flowers, and more. One of the three plots is mostly herbs and flowers. It's located close to the kitchen and our staff can go out and get fresh herbs on a daily basis. That kind of freshness really impacts the quality of our food program," says Gaillard.
- For items not available locally, the department's Environmental Commitments include a provision that reads, "We will ensure that a selection criterion for all contracted vendors is a consideration of their environmental practices and record." All vendors are required to complete a vendor sustainability survey, the results of which play significantly into their selection.
Reducing Waste a Priority
- While such initiatives impact what comes in to the kitchens at Bowdoin, the college also focuses hard on what's going out through aggressive waste management initiatives. The most important of those is a food management software program that Gaillard says has been in place for a few years but that the department continues to utilize more effectively each year. "We continue to learn more about how to get the most out of it," she says. "One of the biggest things we've learned is that in order to get good information out you really have to be very diligent about putting good information in. We just didn't feel like we had the time or the expertise to do that, so two years ago we hired a full-time person who runs the program. That's been very successful for us and made it much more useful."
- The program's primary benefit is waste reduction thanks to tight standardization of recipes and data-driven cycle menu management. "We're able to constantly tweak our recipes so that the cooks aren't producing more ingredients or doing more prep than they're really going to need," she says. "We have four cycle menus so we feed information on what was produced and used going back several years. Now, all production decisions are data driven and the feedback loop allows us to constantly sharpen the numbers."
- Additional waste reduction initiatives at Bowdoin include:
- Communicating with students about food waste issues and offering tray-optional dining. "We have a line of humorous posters designed to help students be mindful of not taking too much food. It's especially hard for students new to the cafeteria, who tend to take more than they can eat, so we do marketing around not wasting food. "
- Sending food waste to a local pig farmer.
- Removing bottled water as a beverage option at the bagged lunch area and replacing it with a hydration station and providing bulk water containers at catered events.
- Continually working with vendors to reduce packaging.
- Ensuring that all waste from the college's two largest annual catering events, a lobster bake for 1,500 and a commencement lunch for 4,000, is completely composted at a nearby farm.
- Offering cash discounts for use of reusable mugs and lunch bags, and providing washing service for students' mugs.
The best waste-reducing equipment the college has invested in are pulpers, used in both dining halls to reduce the mass of post-consumer food waste. "They've been very effective," Gaillard says. "At the end of a night in which we've served 1,000 for dinner, we end up with just a small compact cube of pulped food waste. It's just one more thing among a lot of small things being done here that combine to make a big difference."
Campus Dining Snapshot
- Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine
- No. Students: 1,750; 94 percent live on campus
- Operation: Self operated
- Program profile: 2 dining halls, 3 retail dining operations (café, grill, c-store)
- Average number of board meals served per week: 25,000
- Annual food purchases: $2.5 million
- Mary Lou Kennedy, director of dining and bookstore services
- Kenneth Cardone, associate director/executive chef
- Michele Gaillard, associate director of operations
- Sara Cawthon, Bowdoin organic garden manager