Students + Campus

The delicious side of environmentalism: sustainable eating

UCLA is closing in on its goal of 20 percent sustainable food by 2020

Organic produce
Alanthebox/Wikimedia Commons

With an organic salad bar in the middle of campus, one of the nation’s healthiest dining halls and a hospital cafeteria with an array of locally grown produce, UCLA is becoming an ever-easier place to eat sustainably.

Campuswide, 17 percent of the food feeding 70,000 Bruins each day is sustainable, from responsibly sourced fish to fair-trade coffee. This week, UCLA joins forces with thousands of other organizations nationwide and several UC campuses to celebrate Food Week on Oct. 22-24 with demonstrations, film screenings, lectures, discussions and a special dinner. UCLA is on its way to meeting the goal for all UC campuses to have 20 percent sustainable food by 2020, explained Nurit Katz, the chief sustainability officer for UCLA.

“Especially in a drought like this one where agricultural communities have been severely impacted, sustainable food systems are on everyone’s mind,” Katz said. And that’s about more than eating an organic apple a day to keep the doctor away. “The food that we choose to consume has big impacts on everything from labor practices to climate change and water use.”

Purchasing food from co-ops that offer profit-sharing supports ethical employers. The hospital’s meatless Mondays and UCLA Dining’s beefless Thursdays encourage people to eat foods that require less energy and water to raise. A campuswide eradication of Styrofoam food containers and a commitment to composting are just a few of the other ways that a focus on food supports sustainability at UCLA.

For example, trayless dining — which saves water by cutting down on washing trays — has become so common among students that trays have become a sign of an inexperienced newbie, said Aliana Lungo-Shapiro, the business analytics manager who heads the sustainability program for UCLA Housing and Hospitality and oversees the university’s annual sustainable food report.

“This wasn’t true just a few years ago when I was a student here, but now there’s a perception that if you’re using a tray to get your food, you’re a first-year and new to the Hill,” she said.

The emphasis on sustainable food is supported by UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative, which promotes a culture of mental and physical health and wellness. The UCLA initiative also helped inspire the University of California Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness UC resources to address global food needs.

As of June, the Associated Students of UCLA, which runs on-campus restaurants, coffee houses and food courts, had hit the mark for 15 percent sustainable food. A centerpiece is a fully stocked, fully organic salad bar in the Ackerman Student Union food court.

UCLA Dining, which serves more than 25,000 meals a day at its dining halls and cafés on the Hill, is up to 12 percent. Bruin Plate, which is fast becoming a model of healthy eating for the other dining halls, reached 31 percent in June. Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has surpassed the UC-wide goal of 20 percent, with the cafeteria and food service in patient rooms achieving 30 percent.

Staff charged with shifting UCLA to sustainable food say it’s a challenge to get started because vendors aren’t used to providing it. For example, many local farms are too small to keep up with UCLA’s huge demand. Conversely, large vendors that draw from multiple farms haven’t traditionally had a way to give clients like UCLA details about whether a case of kale, for example, is coming in to Westwood from 200 or 2,000 miles away.

“A small restaurateur developing a menu may be able to rely on a local farmers market, but when you’re serving more than 25,000 meals a day, the volume can challenge small- and medium-sized local farms,” Lungo-Shapiro said. Still, all of UCLA Dining’s dairy is local, all the eggs are cage-free, and all the dining halls offer fair-trade sugar. Bruin Plate features local olive oil, fair-trade coffee and tea, sustainably sourced seafood and a wide, rotating array of locally grown seasonal salad bar items.

When they began talking to vendors, staff at the hospital found that they were among the first to even ask about antibiotic-free meats or sustainable fish. Now, 65 percent of their produce is organic or local, chicken breasts and ground beef are antibiotic-free, most fish is sustainably sourced, and all staff received reusable bottles to fill at fountains to discourage purchasing water bottles.

Across campus, UCLA is developing relationships with farmers, dairies, fisheries and more. The university also relies on distributors who specialize in finding local produce, combining harvests from multiple small farms to create a reliable stream of sustainable food.

Far from being passive consumers, students are helping to drive much of this change. In fact, demand has surpassed expectations at the healthful Bruin Plate. Student groups, from clubs to policy boards, environmental classes to campus gardens, are pushing for organic, free-trade, local, sustainable food.

“Increasingly, students know that eating real food has less of an impact on the planet, and that processed food takes more water and energy,” Lungo-Shapiro said. “Education is essential. If students don’t understand the benefits, they won’t support it.”

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