MHC Dining: On the Cutting Edge

Posted: December 7, 2006

Environmental stewardship is nothing new at MHC's dining tables. Dining services director Dale Hennessey and her staff work unstintingly to adopt environmentally friendly practices in all aspects of their work, from locating suppliers of local and organic foods to composting waste at local farms.

The College procures as much of its food as possible from local growers and purveyors, including honey from Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield and hummus from Hot Mama's in Springfield. Its produce vendor, Fowler and Huntting, based in Hartford, Connecticut, is also committed to buying from local farms. In addition to fresh produce, dining services makes every effort to buy environmentally and socially responsible goods, including Equal Exchange fair trade certified coffee and North Coast Seafoods, and organic products such as Silk soymilk and Nasoya tofu.

At the College's Sustainable Agriculture Dinner this past September, dining services highlighted local farmers and suppliers, serving locally produced free-range turkey, aquaculture-farmed fish, and fresh vegetables and fruits. The dinner, one of the College's occasional "gracious meals," was one of the most popular ever, according to John Fortini, associate director of dining services.

Last year Mount Holyoke and the other members of Five Colleges formalized the buy-local effort as a Five College initiative. Hennessey is optimistic about building connections with local providers. "Eventually, they may be able to plant specifically to supply our needs," she said, "but that will take several years. We continue to cultivate these relationships." One of the first Five College efforts was a meeting with local farmers and suppliers of produce, dairy, and meat to discuss the feasibility of buying their products. "It was a good learning opportunity for everyone, an opportunity to put names with faces," said Hennessey. "It also gave the farmers and suppliers a chance to get to know each other and talk about ways they could help each other out."

Hennessey pointed out that there are challenges to working with certain suppliers. MHC is a "small school with a big delivery system," she said. The College provides food at 17 separate outlets on campus, and requires many of its distributors to deliver to each of those sites. Some distributors do not want or cannot commit to the extra fuel and labor costs, said Hennessey.

But buying the food is just the beginning of dining services' environmentally friendly procedures. Dining services also works creatively to minimize energy by using energy-efficient kitchen equipment such as low-temperature dishwashers, refrigerators that use environmentally friendly gases, and laundry machines that use less soap, water, and energy and take larger loads. They even use reclaimed heat from the refrigeration system to heat the warehouse. "We're on the cutting edge among colleges," said Fortini.

The College has also switched over to biodegradable and recyclable materials for several of its disposable goods. At picnics, for example, diners use biodegradable plates, utensils, and cups, and waste is collected in biodegradable garbage bags. These goods tend to be more expensive, but Hennessey and Fortini believe they are worth it.

While some environmentally friendly practices cost the College more, others save the College money. For example, dining services recycles all its liquid frying grease (they don't use any trans fats), passing it along to a rendering company for reuse, a procedure that is far less costly than paying to dispose of the grease, which is no longer permitted in landfills. Dining services also composts pre- and post-consumer food waste, providing it to two local farmers who process it for agricultural use. "We started this because it made sense and we knew it was a good thing to do," said Hennessey, adding that Hampshire College is the only other member of the Five Colleges to compost food waste.

Hennessey describes the effort as a "campuswide collaborative" under the umbrella of Nancy Apple, director of environmental health and safety. The Dining Services Advisory Board, which has several student members, has a strong interest in environmental matters. "Students come to us with ideas, and sometimes they're surprised that we're already doing what they're proposing," Hennessey said.

"Our job as educators is quite a challenge," Hennessey said. "We have a long way to go in changing everyone's views and behaviors about environmentally friendly practices." Fortini said that people's habits are shaped by their upbringing. "It's important for students to understand what we're doing. When they know what we're doing they help out a lot. Composting and the other things we do aren't simple to execute. We need to train the staff and students to separate materials. We need to coordinate pickup schedules for compost and recyclables, to use the right containers, to work with the board of health. We're constantly looking at what we can do differently and better."

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Environmental & Sustainable Initiatives