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Inside Tufts Dining: Balancing Sustainability and Student Demands

Campus | November 17, 2014

In Dewick or Carm, Tufts students are presented with more options than they are likely to see at once in any other setting. We can choose from a sometimes overwhelming selection which includes multiple prepared entrees, salad, and sandwich options, and an entire wall of different cereals. By doing so frequently, we tend to take this wide array for granted and come to expect it. When making our own decisions about what to put on our plate, we generally fail to think about the larger process and food system that determine what is available for us to choose from. In planning the menu, Tufts Dining must consider a number of factors including cost, quantity, student desires, sustainability, and the inevitable interconnectedness of these components. In the dining halls, food—one of the most basic human needs—becomes hugely complicated.

On its website, Tufts Dining claims to be “committed to sustainable, environmental stewardship both in the dining centers and around campus,” conjuring up an image of conscious decision-making and healthy, thoughtful options. This statement reinforces the perception of Tufts as an institution with an emphasis on social justice and political action. While it may satisfy the curiosity of the general reader, does it really delve into the breadth of this topic? Does it really explain the complexities of feeding thousands of students?

Given this mission statement, it would be easy to take it at face value and declare Tufts Dining to be idealistically sustainable. It would also be easy to vilify the institution for painting a façade of environmental consciousness merely to satisfy the public. It’s easy to overlook all of the details that go into making decisions and, in reality, Tufts Dining lies somewhere in between.

Tufts Dining Nutrition and Marketing specialist Julie Lampie explained that Tufts Dining looked into replacing conventional marinara sauce with a similar product that is grown and processed by a local Massachusetts farmer. They asked for 250 gallons of the sauce in hopes that it would provide the dining halls with a long-term source, but the farmer was only able to provide nine gallons. Although this option was financially sound and supportive of local business, the demand couldn’t be met. The farmer is revising his plan for next season to hopefully produce the necessary quantity. Unfortunately, small, local farmers often have limited resources and tend to rely on more natural farming techniques, making them less consistent than large scale industrial farming.

Living in Massachusetts, the growing season is short and during the summer when students are not around. According to Lampie, on average approximately 11 percent of the produce is locally grown, but this percentage peaks in the warmer months at around 30 percent and drops in the winter. Lampie explained that instead of purchasing directly from local farmers, Tufts Dining will primarily use a produce company as a “middle-man” because it allows for local products that can’t consistently be produced at a large enough quantity to be supplemented or replaced with the conventional equivalent. A seemingly simple solution would be to try to cater the menu to what foods are available locally; however, as a business, Tufts Dining is driven by the consumer, and local produce in Massachusetts is limited by climate.

Despite having sustainability in mind, Tufts Dining exists first and foremost for students and therefore strives to fill student desires. When asked if she has seen an increase in student interest in sustainable efforts in the dining halls. Lampie responded that although she would “really like to say yes,” she hasn’t. Because students drive the success Tufts Dining, without their engagement and concern for the environment, sustainability is not likely to improve.

For example, Tufts Dining generally opts to use sustainable, locally caught fish.  However, according to Lampie, the most popular fish option is salmon, which does not have a sustainable option readily available. They could either take the more environmental route and remove it from the menu or satisfy the demand of the students who provide economic support. Sophmore Ellie Doyle, President of Food for Thought, a discussion-based group on campus that addresses food-related topics, agrees, pointing out that “they try to be sustainable while still catering to student needs and to student demands for really popular dishes that aren’t necessarily sustainably sourced.”

While students can continue to passively use their consumer power to drive unsustainable practices, they can also direct their efforts into making impactful changes. For example, over a decade ago, Tufts offered no fair-trade coffee options. Erin Allweiss, a 2005 Tufts graduate, recognized this and collaborated with Tufts Dining to incorporate more sustainable options, making a lasting change that impacts the university and its students long after her graduation.

However, sometimes student activism is not enough; a recent student effort to increase the use of cage-free eggs was not successful. While some of the eggs used in the dining halls were already cage-free, students wanted to eradicate other eggs completely from the dining halls. Yet the cost of using solely cage-free eggs is somewhat prohibitive at extra costs of $30,000 per year. Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos pointed out on Tufts Dining Website that this cost was “the equivalent of a student scholarship covering one-half of a student’s tuition, fees, and room and board.” Despite sustainable ideals, environmental options are often more expensive and not necessarily realistic on the scale that Tufts operates on. Students care and work to make a change, but sometimes there are systematic barriers out of the control of Tufts administration, such as the cost-disparity between sustainable and unsustainable food.

Even when the interests and concerns of Tufts students and administrators align, the constraints of the larger food system further exacerbate the complexity of sustainable food. Industrial agriculture makes it possible to consistently grow and produce large quantities of food at a low price, making it difficult for food raised in a more sustainable manner to compete in the market, both in terms of price and logistics. It allows consumers to have access to food that wouldn’t be available without the controlled environment and large-scale processes, thus creating a demand that can only be adequately satisfied by that system. Individuals can be impactful by committing their time and effort towards making a change at Tufts, like Allweiss did; however, perhaps the conversation should expand from beyond sustainability at Tufts to also encompass working towards a larger structural change. The conversation and action towards more environmentally-sound options at Tufts shouldn’t be abandoned, but if by keeping the broader issues of the larger system in mind, we can work towards more effective change.