Thirty-thousand students, two dining halls, a myriad of local food options, and an ever-dwindling amount of food waste. These four elements comprise the dining landscape of the University of Kentucky (UK), where sustainability and efficiency converge. Whether you’ve already implemented sustainable practices into your food offerings or you don’t know where to start, UK can serve as your inspiration. We spoke with Aramark Sustainability Manager Carolyn Gahn who works closely with the campus sustainability director and the department of waste management to ensure that their dining program is aligning with the university’s goals and needs.
Sourcing from Local Farms
The University of Kentucky–established in 1865 as a Land Grant University–is well-known among the farming community near Lexington. Through their commitments to using local growers, UK sources produce and protein from farms close to campus. In fact, $1.7 million of UK Dining’s budget was spent on local food last year. In addition to giving the students fresh options from down the road, local options also help UK conserve natural resources and support the community.
One of Gahn’s main goals is “to bring the experiences I’ve created for my kids at home to UK.” Just as her own kids are able to see that their food comes from their own backyard, “I want the students to know where their food has come from and how it got to their plate,” she says. Executive Chef Marty Burton agrees, inspired by his daughter, “I want to make sure in the future, she will have access to the same natural food and produce that we have now. If we don’t take the action now, what are future generations going to do?”
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Gahn’s farming and agriculture background helps her not only bring a layer of personal connection to her role, but also be able to put herself in the farmers’ shoes. “I understand what producers need to be able to service large customers - that is, a commitment at the beginning of the season, so that they know how much to plant. At the volume we’re working with, we wouldn’t be able to source enough from just what people have grown for other markets,” she notes.
By working directly with farmers and local food aggregators, Gahn and the team at UK have found that putting programs in place works best for them. “We've created a local salad bar program and a local whole animal program so that we can make that initial season-long commitment to the growers for our weekly needs,” she explains. Through these programs, we’re able to customize the products based on what they need in each dining hall. “The beauty of working with local producers is if we want to make any changes, such as needing them to cut a roast to a different size, or needing smaller stems on the spring mix, it's easy for them to change those things,” says Gahn.
Chef Burton enjoys cooking on the meat smokers on UK’s campus. These smokers are a useful part of the Marksbury Farm Whole Animal Program which works with a cooperative of local farmers. “It's much better for a farmer to sell a whole animal at a time, rather than trying to fulfill our needs of one cut that they would run out of very quickly,” Gahn explains. Buying in bulk like this works well for the number of students we need to feed, such as the bulk sausage we purchase from Marksbury Farm to be used for pizza topping and taco filling. “We're committing to purchasing from the farmer in a way that works for them,” says Gahn.
Through the Local Salad Bar Program, students can find salad greens and toppings sourced from 6 farms all within a 100-mile radius of campus. The students can look at stickers to see exactly where that spinach or radish came from, and the farms get the added benefit of creating a consumer connection to their brand. One of the salad bar’s farms, Crooked Row, used to produce for restaurants on a smaller, less predictive scale. By partnering with us, they’ve been able to focus on larger amounts of a handful of crops, allowing them to become more efficient and expand their business, hiring additional people.
Gahn and Chef Burton also work closely together on catering efforts, where they say local options serve as a great marketing tool. “It’s a way to really please the customer, and it creates this custom feel to somebody's catered event that goes above and beyond,” says Gahn.
In the Kitchen
The key to successfully bringing in local options comes down to clear communication. According to Gahn, “transparency from all stakeholders is crucial in order to create sustainable partnerships.” Chef Burton explains further, “We coordinate with the farms before we even begin planning the menus.” This helps us have an understanding of what is available from the farms that we source from in an area. “We lay out how much of each product we typically go through on a daily basis, and the farms we source from will then provide that every day or every couple of days to ensure the products are fresh,” he notes. This process also helps the team figure out what needs to be sourced elsewhere. “We use as much local food as we can by adapting our menus and planning ahead, but not everything we serve can be local knowing the demand. Our goal is to integrate these products seamlessly into our current operations and ordering platforms,” says Burton.
Physically sitting down with the farmers and bringing them into our facilities is one of the best ways to kick off planning. The farmers are able to see what equipment we have, and what we’re planning to do with their product, “it helps them to grow a product that works for our needs,” says Burton. This can also help quell any intimidation or answer any questions the farmers may have about working on such a large scale. We sit down with them to nail down what will work best for both parties, and what challenges could arise.
Reducing Food Waste
Working with local producers also helps UK minimize food left on the farm due to overproduction. Planning with the farmer fosters a closed loop food waste mentality, “When we work with the farmer to determine what we're going to need, there isn't going to be more grown than is used,” she says. “Right off the bat we're eliminating food waste as much as possible, before it even enters our doors.”
Chef Burton explains how the chefs are trained to reduce waste during prep, “We teach our chefs techniques to ensure they are utilizing as much of the produce as possible. We walk them through how to cut and prepare certain foods to ensure we are limiting the waste while educating them on why we do what we do. We also have a production chef that ensures the chefs are following the training guidelines.”
Even in the best of monitoring systems, waste can still happen. In these cases, the team will reach out to community partners to donate the food. Chef Burton says, “this way we can sustain our partnerships while avoiding waste on our side.” In addition to our own composting pilot program that’s kicking off next semester, we have a local nonprofit that picks up food prep waste in buckets and take it to community gardens to teach children how to compost.
A student led initiative called Campus Kitchen collects leftover food each week and turns it into meals for students with insufficient access to food. According to Chef Burton, food waste is a big focus of this generation. “They are aware of how much food is being wasted and are interested in taking steps to make sure that people are not going hungry,” he says. Beyond food waste reduction efforts, Campus Kitchen has also created a “pool” of meal swipes, in addition to regular “Gather at the Table” and “Farm to Table” dinners for students who may not have a meal plan.
Involving the Consumer
Planning and food preparation are only two pieces of the food waste reduction puzzle, the final piece is the consumer. At UK, the teams work to educate the students on how and why they shouldn’t take more food than they’re going to eat. Strategies such as providing smaller plates, having employees serve portions or using correctly sized serving utensils to ensure a proper serving size is taken each time, and The Scoop, which offers students the option to taste samples, are effective. Every so often, the dining hall will hold “Weigh the Waste” events where students can physically see how much food they’re throwing away. Through LeanPath’s SPARK tracking software, all of the food waste that goes into the dish room is projected onto a monitor in the dining hall, so students can actually watch the number ticking up and compare it to the day before. “When students can make that connection with specific actions that they're having on the food waste, that changes the mindset,” says Gahn, “it helps set some benchmarking goals, and the students feel encouraged to do better next time.”
As seen in many of our higher education dining offerings, the only single-use disposable products you’ll find in UK’s dining halls are napkins and paper towels. As a part of our broader effort to reduce plastics, everything from utensils, to cups and plates, and to-go containers (made from plant product) are reusable.
The approach at University of Kentucky is to create a model for sustainability that can be easy to implement elsewhere, further supporting the local community. “Each region has different processing logistics of course, but taking a model and bringing it to them, they can work with the farmers that exist there, and develop the same plan.” Gahn believes you can still do that while making plans that work best for us in a way that is efficient and cost effective, “It does cost more but these programs really highlight all the collaboration pieces of tangibly building the food system. When it fits with operations, it’s a no-brainer,” she explains. “It's really cool to see a system develop that makes it better for everybody. The more developed the system is, the better efficiencies we get, the better consistency we have.” What’s most important is to keep in mind why we're doing this in the first place and holding on to how it benefits the community.