UMass Dartmouth Serves Up Sustainability

Students demanded reduction in wasted food

By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

DARTMOUTH — When the Massachusetts food-scrap ban passed last year, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth dining services was prepared. For four years, Chartwells, a national food services consulting firm, had been running a sustainable food program through the university’s 12 dining areas and retail venues.

The UMass Dartmouth program emphasizes reduction of waste from the beginning to end of the dining-service system, ending in a “pulper” that can reduce 6,000 pounds per week of food scrap to 1,600 pounds of solids.

Although the state’s food-scrap ban took effect in July, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started by establishing policies of administering the ban. Regulations take effect Oct. 1.

In this case, the pre-pulper volume of waste was used to determine whether UMass Dartmouth had to comply with the ban. The university’s food scrap will be hauled to the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse District site at Crapo Hill, which now hosts a bioenergy plant run by the CommonWealth Resource Management Corporation. An anaerobic digester at the facility will turn food scrap into methane gas, and the gas will be burned to generate electricity.

“We’re starting an incremental introduction of material that will help to facilitate a non-problematic commencement,” said Anthony Finelli, principal at CommonWealth Resource.

The bioenergy plant’s commissioning process includes testing the mechanical system, seeding the digester and the initial introduction of digestibles over several weeks. Once that is completed, the plant will take commercial deliveries for actual digestion, Finelli said.

UMass Dartmouth’s $450 million overhaul to its dining program in 2010 made sustainability the overarching goal in every aspect of food service.

“The program works so well because it was the students who requested it,” said dining services regional director Ed Gilmore. “Students wanted more than just recycling, although they do that, too. In fact, the students wanted all facets of dining services to be sustainable.”

The program combines initiatives in protecting the environment, purchasing, community reinvestment and nutrition, including non-food changes such as revamping dining-room lighting with motion detectors and light switches. Simply turning off the lights in the dining room and using natural light on sunny days saves money, reduces electricity consumption and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Gilmore said.

Combining environmental and nutritional sustainability, UMass Dartmouth dining services uses chicken, milk and yogurt free from growth hormones, Fair Trade-certified coffee, and eggs laid by cage-free hens. Dining services also offers a flavored-water fountain, to avoid individual plastic bottles at The Marketplace Dining Hall, the campus’ main dining area.

Here are some of the university's other sustainability programs:

Trim Trax: Well before food is thrown away, dining services tracks food scrap from the beginning to the end of the food-service system. During food preparation, fruit and vegetable trimmings are collected for local farmers.

Trimmings include the outer leaves of greens, vegetable skins and unusable parts of cut fruit such as seeds or skins. An estimated 21,000 pounds of fruit and vegetable trimmings go to the chickens at Stonybrook Farm annually.

Project Clean Plate: Plate waste is measured in front of students, instead of back in the kitchen. The poundage is posted weekly, and as students realize the direct impact that their eating habits have on the environment, that number drops by hundreds of pounds over the semester.

To further reduce waste, “small plate” reminders at food stations suggest that students take a sample of food instead of filling their plate with something they may not like.

The difference in poundage between the regular waste weight and Project Clean Plate weight is donated to charitable organizations, such as Rosie’s Kitchen in Boston, as part of the community reinvestment component of the sustainability program.

A “farm-to-fork” program: UMass Dartmouth partnered with the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Program (SEMAP) to buy fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers and seafood from New Bedford fishermen. The university now buys nearly 41,000 pounds of locally grown potatoes annually, as well as plenty of apples, zucchini and quahogs.

This year, Gilmore signed up local produce suppliers Plainville-based Red Tomato and Providence-based Farm Fresh Rhode Island, both are nonprofit food-system initiatives that support sustainable growing practices and markets.

Of course, the university’s dining services also reuses and recycles:

Some 5,000 gallons of used frying oil is sold to Cape Cod Biofuel annually, where it is converted into biofuel for delivery trucks.

About 105,000 pounds of cardboard boxes are transformed into paper, tissues and building materials at an off-site pulp mill.

Plates, utensils and glasses in the dining halls are real, not disposable. The napkins are compostable.

UMass Dartmouth sees its sustainable food services program as part of the university’s overall educational program, teaching a new generation how to recycle, reuse and reduce waste, while understanding the connection food choices have on the larger community and the environment.