The Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently launched a new site, Organic on the Green: A Blog to Feed the Organic Revolution in Campus Dining. Participants in the blog are assigned a date to post an article, and OTA hopes of course that collaborative discussions will follow. The following article was written for the new blog, and is being posted simultaneously here and on Organic on the Green.
New York University has seven dining halls, which many of our 20,000 undergraduate students never use after the expiration of their freshman year meal plan. Until my sophomore spring, while concentrating my academics on Northeast agriculture and sustainable farming, I had no intention of getting involved with the food system at NYU. Having matriculated to the school with the hopes of avoiding a collegiate “bubble,” I saw working on school dining as a project that would cut me off from the bigger picture, even just our regional food system, which I felt demanded more immediate attention.
As any New Yorker might begrudgingly tell you, however, NYU is a sizeable part of a “bigger” picture. Not only is the University one of the largest employers in New York, as well as the owner of substantial urban property, but it happens to spend quite a substantial sum of money: on food. We purchase over 340,000 pounds of food per semester, worth about $4 million. In 2006, a group of five Gallatin students researched and developed a Sustainability Assessment of NYU, in which they recognized (among other things) the immensity of that purchasing power. The assessment pointed out that Aramark, our food service provider, “unfortunately has the worst record among national food services when it comes to purchasing local food,” although Sid Wainer, the company that provided about 12% of NYU’s produce, does deal with many local farmers. Of course, any local food supply depends upon our Northeast growing season, but as the Sustainability Assessment highlighted, NYU could consistently prioritize organic, sustainably farmed products, and also take advantage of the seasonal abundance. New York, the assessors explained, “has more farms than any other state on the Eastern seaboard.” Their survey results explained that students would strongly support a dining hall dedicated to local and organic foods, and would even pay an additional $0.75 to $1/meal to eat there. We could see the local bounty in the 46 Greenmarkets and 50 CSA sites throughout the boroughs. We just didn’t have that food in our dining halls.
In 2006, the only identifiable “sustainable” products at NYU were local apples (a percentage of the total apples). Through the efforts of student clubs, the Sustainability Task Force, and the increasingly open-minded Aramark: We now have 100% Fair Trade coffee. Our fish is bought from Wild Edibles. For the last academic year, one dining hall, Hayden, was devoted to providing as much local, organic, and/or Fair Trade food as possible. About 32% of the food purchased for Hayden fell into one or more of these categories. These changes came after considerable time at the drawing board: defining organic, defining local, prioritizing values, considering whether to set large goals or small, to resist collaboration with Aramark, or to set about working together. Increased inter-school collaboration between students, particularly among participants in the Real Food Summit last fall, has facilitated this work immensely.
The Food and Purchasing Subcommittee of the Sustainability Task Force requested purchasing data from Dining Services this Spring, and the data received (pounds purchased, dollars spent, Hayden vs. other dining hall comparisons) is now being evaluated. The F&P Committee also developed sustainable cateringcriteria, and Aramark is now offering an organic catering option.
Clearly, we have a ways to go before inciting a full-scale agrarian revolution at NYU. We have gardens, but no farms, local apples, but plenty of bananas, and when it comes down to it, we young farmers and farm-appreciators of the school could simply eat elsewhere. But instead we are working towards change, recognizing that our style must be rather like the tortoise: slow but steady. The steady is the most important thing to maintain, a quality rare in rotating student populations, but I have an immensely excited trust that local, organic foods will steadily increase in our dining halls, and our pace of change may even quicken in the coming years. Ever since the Real Food Summit last Fall, since the chairing of the Food and Purchasing Subcommittee by a freshman this Spring, since the launching of this website this week…it has been clear to me that students working on changing their institutional food systems are no longer alone. We have begun to help each other! We’re recognizing a big picture. We’re reaching far outside our own academic spheres. And we show no signs of retreat.