The signs of this revolution are subtle but pervasive. Sometimes it’s what you don’t see, like meatless Mondays at the Reagan UCLA Medical Center cafeteria, less Styrofoam at campus restaurants and students balancing plates without trays in the dining halls.
On the Hill, where Housing and Hospitality Services runs the dining halls, Dining Services is composting 60 tons of food annually. An organic herb garden supplying occasional harvests for students’ meals has doubled in size. And “Beefless Thursdays” and vegetarian options at every food station encourage students to eat lower on the food chain.
In campus restaurants, compostable plates and utensils are gaining ground, vendor contracts have been renegotiated to reduce or eliminate Styrofoam, and an organic salad bar dominates Ackerman Union’s food court.
On campus and especially on the Hill, the conversion to green isn’t done by staff alone: Students are playing a role in the transformation, in part through classroom Action Research Teams and Team Green projects in the dorms that help students connect with staff to solve sustainability problems.
“It’s really important to have the students behind any major changes we make,” said Robert Gilbert, the sustainability manager for Housing and Hospitality Services. “This is what they eat every day. It should be the food they want.”
These are changes that sophomore Charlotte Rose, the Team Green coordinator for her dorm, wholeheartedly approves of. Rose hosted a sustainable-food appreciation event for her dorm mates, offering samples from Trader Joes and playing games to illustrate how much water it takes to raise beef versus other sources of protein.
“When they saw how much water and energy it took, they were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Rose said. “The dining halls have been so helpful. Going trayless means people pick up less food all at once, and it’s been so useful. There’s also a lot more vegan and vegetarian choices than there used to be.”
Just two years ago, Miller was one of the UCLA students working with Gilbert to make the dining halls greener. When she was hired, she worked with more students to develop a list of local farms. So for the past two summers, the dining halls have had locally sourced, organic fruit supplementing their usual fare, she said.
It wasn’t easy to find local farms that met UCLA’s vendor standards and reliably provide enough food for a dining system that serves 10,000 students and plans meals three months ahead of time, Miller said.
“I was looking at dozens of farms within 250 miles to find the right ones,” the sustainability analyst said.
While they still offer a few organic items at the salad bar, there are so many things students want, and so little room in the budget, Gilbert said. “We really try to focus on things we can do on a large scale within the budget.”
“I’d like to see more organic options, but I don’t see a lot of demand for it,” admitted Robert Nguyen, a sophomore and the Team Green coordinator for his dorm. “The dining halls are very open to student feedback. They’ve added more vegetarian and vegan food, more gluten-free food and even fair-trade sugar."
One powerful way students make their choices known to housing and dining staff is the weekly Policy Review Board meetings. “A lot of it is about specific items: more of that soup, or that Korean barbecue is too spicy,” Miller said. “But they also talk about sustainability. Last year, a student mentioned that he’d seen fair-trade sugar in packets and asked why we didn’t have them.”
After staff looked into it, the switch was made within a week. Now that’s influence.