Committed students are raising the profile of what was once a niche movement – food sustainability – both on campus and beyond.
Seniors Rachel Esbjornsen and J.P. Kemmick spent the summer researching PLU’s food practices, including the origins of food served on campus, the virtues of locally produced food versus organic food, and, ultimately, how food waste is disposed of.
The two, along with ASPLU and GREAN, will showcase their findings and kick off a year dedicated to sustainability with the first Organic Local Foods Fair on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 11 a.m. in Red Square.
The fair will feature a meal made entirely of food that was produced locally and organically, and will provide information about what food sustainability is and ways to take action.
The next week, Esbjornsen and Kemmick will join Director of Facilities Management Dave Kohler and Vice President for Finance and Operations Sheri Tonn at the annual national conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education at Arizona State University to sit on panel discussions about green building, master planning and sustainable food.
Esbjornsen and Kemmick’s summer research in Dining Services prompted the event. Both are active in improving and promoting sustainability on campus: Kemmick is the current president of GREAN, the student group that promotes environmental awareness; Esbjornsen is a past president of the group, and both are members of PLU’s Sustainability Committee.
Esbjornsen received a Sustainability Fellowship to investigate how to create a culture of sustainability on campus in regard to food. Meanwhile, as the student sustainability intern for Dining Services, Kemmick’s work focused directly on how to reduce food waste through composting.
After looking at what other schools were doing to promote and support sustainable food practices, Esbjornsen realized that in addition to raising awareness about the subject, she needed to provide ways for people to act. That’s why the sustainable food movement, as it has been termed, asks, “What shade of green are you?” and offers steps people can take to live a greener life, she said.
“We all come from different levels of awareness about what sustainability is,” Esbjornsen said. “The concept of sustainability can be overwhelming, like I have to change everything in my life.”
For those interested in taking the plunge, Esbjornsen recommends taking baby steps. She cited a friend who couldn’t afford to buy all organic groceries. Instead of giving up because she couldn’t jump in all the way, her friend started off by only buying organic milk.
“To make sustainability stick, you have to make it a lifestyle,” Esbjornsen said.
People need to understand the broader impact of their diet, Esbjorsen said. How the food was produced, where it came from and how it got to your table all have an impact on the environment. Agricultural practices often waste water and use harmful pesticides, and transporting the products across the country or continents uses fossil fuels that harm the environment, she explained.
The debate about buying locally produced or organic food has been growing, Esbjornsen said. When given the choice, she recommends choosing locally produced food. It uses fewer resources because it does not have to be shipped far, which translates into less pollution and a stronger environment. The same is not necessarily true for organic food, she said.
“I look at it as a spiritual connection to food – it’s a source of life, and you have to honor that and make choices based off of it,” Esbjornsen said. “I’m taking care of the spirit of myself as well as the earth.”
While Esbjornsen focused on how to increase the eating of local and organic food, Kemmick researched how composting would help to reduce food waste in Dining Services. Most of the food being tossed could be composted, he said.
Kemmick said he thinks composting would be an easy change to make because it simply involves placing the organic waste, like vegetables from the salad bar, into a composting bin instead of a trash can.
“Composting is really important,” he said. “Right now we put it in a cement box and it won’t get back to the earth.
The composting bins Kemmick is planning to build use worms to eat the microbes, the organisms that break down the food. The worm poop is then harvested as compost, which Kemmick points out would be a cost-effective way to fertilize campus grounds.
“We’re not paying to haul it away, and we’re not buying fertilizer,” he said.
Kemmick is still working to put the composting system in to place. With the help of GREAN members, he is currently collecting data about how much food is thrown away each day by weighing the leftover food on student trays and at the various food stations at the end of the night. Beginning next month, the group will scrape trays and weigh the leftovers twice a week, he said.
The food fair is only the beginning of the food sustainability movement at PLU, Kemmick said. October is packed with events about the subject, including a speech by author Anne Lappe on the 11th, a panel at Meant to Live on the 28th, and a trip to Terry’s Berries, a local organic farm on the 21st. Additionally, the Scan Center will host cooking classes for students that use local and organic ingredients, and movies will be shown about issues of food production and consumption.
To learn more, contact GREAN at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Sustainable Food Movement Web site at www.plu.edu/~foodsus. The site includes a Sustainable Pledge, where individuals and campus departments can promise to live greener lives.