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Food sustainability growing across ASU

Photo by Luu Nguyen
Photo by Luu Nguyen

Grasping the pole saw with both hands, Deborah Thirkhill attempts to establish a rhythm in its movements as she saws away at a branch holding a bag. The bag contains the dates still growing on the branch, as well as those that have already fallen off. The saw, though, keeps getting caught on the bag, and the rhythm eludes her.

The Tempe campus has yet to wake fully – Forrest Mall seems devoid of most (but not all) human action. Thirkhill, though, betrays no sense of sleepiness. Alert and eager, she continues to saw until, at last, the fabric is ripped enough that she can get it down from the tree. She brings the bag to the back of truck and begins to examine the fruits of her labor.

Photo by Luu Nguyen Thirkhill holding what she notes as "Arizona's heritage dates." Photo by Luu Nguyen

One branch is lined with the dates. Thirkhill plucks one and holds it closer to her eyes. That one, like several others on the branch, hadn’t dried. “It’s not been a great year for them,” she explains – this summer was a little cooler than most, and the torrential rains of late summer did the dates no great service. Thirkhill notices the source of her difficulties in trying to get the dates down: the bag had covered two branches.

She brightens a little when she inspects the dates at the bottom of the bag, many of which are ready for packing. These are Black Sphinx dates, a hybrid of other date cultivars that sprang up in Phoenix a few decades after the first date palms arrived to America from the Middle East; Thirkhill refers to them as “Arizona’s heritage dates.”

After explaining the origins of the Black Sphinx and briefly delving into the biology of date trees, she further inspects some of the dried dates, and is again pleased. She had thought that these may not have been pollinated – they weren’t hand-pollinated by the staff or volunteers, and they relied on the wind to carry some pollen to this date tree. If they weren’t pollinated, the dates would have still grown, but they would have not had the seed and would be smaller and less flavorful. Thankfully, though, these were pollinated. She climbs back into the planter box to start extracting the next bunch.

Thirkhill is the volunteer coordinator for the ASU arboretum, and she and Andrea Dickens, an instructor in the English department and one of Thirkhill’s volunteers, put the dried dates in the box to be packed later. Much of the date harvesting (at least at the Polytechnic campus) is done by volunteers, as is the cleaning, sorting and packing.

Photo by Luu Nguyen A branch of dates. Photo by Luu Nguyen

The next branch takes far less time to come down than the last; Thirkhill found the rhythm she needed. The branches themselves are a pale orange color, and the dried dates at the bottom look, in a word, unappetizing. Thirkhill insists that these dates are sweet and delicious, almost a little dessert in every bite; despite appearances, a taste test does corroborate her claim.

Arizona State University has adopted the goal of becoming a zero-waste university by 2015. According to John Riley, the university sustainability operations officer, in the ASU Roadmap to Zero Waste, “the goal for the ASU community – consisting of 85,000 students, employers, and contractors – is to generate less than 800 tons of waste per year. That’s about 10 percent of the amount of waste that the average American produces.” This is a multifaceted area; there are many programs, from the Ditch the Dumpster event to the effort to reduce junk mail, that fall under this purview. But one of the most directly relevant to students is the reduction of food waste.

Food waste is a problem – of the 6,778 pounds that ASU sent to the landfill in 2012, a quarter of that was compostable food and food service products. The school wants to shrink that by 90 percent. Alana Levine, the university’s recycling manager, and Krista Hicks, Aramark’s sustainability manager for their ASU contract, point to the progress that has been made in becoming more sustainable, to the multitude of programs that attempt to make this a greener campus.

Ideally, food should not have to go to a landfill. The school tries to follow what the Environmental Protection Agency calls the food recovery hierarchy, where the first guideline is to reduce what is used already.

Aramark accomplishes much of this through staff training, where they can make sure that everyone knows to use only as much food as needed, something that Hicks refers to as “extreme portioning.” In addition, they have green captains on the lookout for substantial amounts of waste. “If they see a substantial amount of waste at any location, they’ll come up with products and ideas of how to negate that waste,” Hicks says. For example, if there’s too much of a sauce used to flavor chicken, the sauce could become a soup ingredient. The dining halls also make sure to use all usable parts of the fruits and vegetables.

Much of food waste reduction, it seems, is being deliberate and strategic in the choices that preparers make. “Back of the house” operations, or the actual preparation side of dining, have, according to Hicks and Levine, begun using much less food to begin with over the past few years. Aramark, as a private contractor, is working for the bottom line too. These programs, in addition to being beneficial to the environment, are helping the company turn a higher profit by reducing waste.

Beyond reducing consumption, the food recovery hierarchy recommends making sure that others without steady access to food in the community receive the perishable excess portions. In order to accomplish this, the dining halls have partnered with a local nonprofit called Waste Not Arizona, which delivers around 6,000 pounds of food daily from local restaurants, grocers and others to those in need.

Of course, no matter how much consumption is reduced or how much is given to charity, there will still be some compostable food waste, even if it’s just small things, like cantaloupe rinds. For this, the school has begun to compost, a practice which was not available for a broad market up until a few years ago because of Arizona’s unique circumstances.

Already, though, there has been progress. The pilot process for composting food waste began in January of 2013 in the Barrett and Hassyampa dining halls, and in the 2013 fiscal year, the school sent 75.02 tons of waste to be composted. This does include green waste, such as fallen branches and grass cuttings, which can be composted, in addition to food and certain papers like napkins (for example, the branches that the dates came off, as well as the dates that weren’t usable, were composted).

After making some minor adjustments to the program to improve performance, it was expanded to Manzanita, Palo Verde and the Memorial Union. The data for fiscal year 2014 show that this expansion, coupled with the expansion of the student body in general, meant that the school sent 270.85 tons to be composted. In the coming months, the program will be expanded to ASU’s other campuses.

Composting has taken longer to become widespread in Arizona than in many other states, in large part because of the low cost of land. When it’s cheap to simply chuck waste in the landfill, there is a limited incentive to find alternative, environmentally conscious ways to dispose of green waste. The school’s commitment to sustainability has driven it to become an early adopter, though. Because it’s such a young industry in the state, “it is costing us a little bit more to choose composting over landfill,” says Levine.

She continues, “We’ve already seen those prices come down, just in a couple of years. We fully expect it to be less expensive in the coming couple of years or so.” Eventually, she does see it becoming less expensive than the landfill: “There’s always a cost to waste disposal, and as the market develops, the cost will decrease.”

In addition, Arizona’s heat proved to be a problem to the actual composting process. Composters have had to figure out how to work with the way that different materials and organisms react to the heat in order to create a quality finished product.

In addition to these larger programs, there are a multitude of smaller efforts to help make the school more sustainable in its food practices.

Take the Grounds for Grounds program, a joint effort between the grounds services, ASU Recycling, the Biodesign Institute and Aramark. They collect the used coffee grounds from locations on the Tempe campuses – the POD Markets, the dining halls and, of course, the Starbucks – and apply them to the flower beds and tree wells and mix it in with the lawn compost. According to the Annual Sustainability Operations Review for 2013, this meant 500 pounds of grounds were diverted from the landfill weekly, saving nearly $11,000 in total costs.

There’s also the B99 Biodiesel Fueling Station Project, a collaboration between Aramark, ASU Facilities Management, REV Biodiesel, and Brown Evans Distributing. REV Biodiesel converts the vegetable oil used to cook by Aramark into B99 biodiesel, or fuel that’s 1 percent petroleum diesel and 99 percent biodiesel, which Brown Evans distributes to the ASU campus for facilities management to use in their vehicles. The university estimates that, through January of 2014, the use of B99 brought down carbon dioxide emissions by 42 tons, while using thousands of gallons of used oil.

Astute readers may have also noticed the relative lack of meat on Mondays in the dining halls. Hicks says, “meatless Mondays is an Aramark program that brings awareness to cut down on meat. It cuts down on greenhouse gasses and uses fewer resources, in addition to showcasing our vegan and vegetarian offerings.”

Indeed, it seems that, on the way to reaching zero waste, no solution should be overlooked. It’s no wonder, then, that the dates harvested by the school are such prized commodities – local, organic, nutritious and delicious, they are important in making sure every part of the school is sustainable. Dates were October’s ingredient of the month, a designation bestowed upon healthy and sustainable foods by Aramark to support their use in as many recipes as possible.

Back at the Grounds Services offices, which are located in a smaller facility behind the mammoth University Services building, Thirkhill launches into an engaging history of the date in America. “At ASU, we’re continuing the heritage of dates in the Salt River Valley. The valley was one of the two places where the USDA decided to try dates in America after they imported them at the turn of the century,” says Thirkhill.

ASU itself has two heritage date palms, one of which grows what Thirkhill refers to as “sugar babies,” after the candies, because they are smaller and taste a little like caramel.

Similarly, the sour oranges factor into campus dining in a major way. This past year, the trees produced over 10,000 pounds of fruit which were used in a multitude of juices, sauces, drinks and more. “Too many people think sour orange trees are just ornamental,” says Thirkhill, “but they’re great in vinaigrettes, sour orange pies and Devil-Ade. They’re like lemons – you don’t eat them on their own, but they’re still useful and delicious.”

It seems like one major constant throughout all of the sustainability programs is collaboration. Thirkhill coordinated with many of the fraternities and sororities to pick them and worked extensively with Sun Orchard, a local juice company, as well as with Aramark to prepare them. Indeed, “Aramark underwrote it, paid for it, and worked through Sun Orchards and another vendor,” according to Thirkhill, in order to use the oranges in the dining halls.

Despite the tremendous progress that the school and Aramark have made in reducing waste, there’s only so much that can be done on the production side. In the end, a lot of waste is generated by students, who will have to be the next major area of focus for the campus sustainability movement.

Electrical engineering sophomore Ngoni Mugwisi says that, only a few days after beginning at ASU, he met a homeless man named John. “John was actually eating from the trash can,” he says, “then I came back to ASU and I saw a huge contrast. There were people actually throwing food in the trash can. That became a striking experience for me.” Mugwisi is from Zimbabwe where, he says, “a lot of people struggle to feed themselves. So it was a huge surprise for me to come here and see that food is in abundance, but it’s being wasted.”

As a response, he started Diners We Care, an organization dedicated to food waste on campus. Much of its work right now is on raising awareness of this problem in hope of breaking food waste as a practice. Their biggest project right now is expanding Weigh the Waste, the annual program where students have their food waste in the dining halls collected and measured. Volunteers then tell people how they might cut down on waste, such as by requesting a half serving.

This year’s food waste per person per meal was 2.43 ounces. While this number may seem small, when multiplied by the sheer number of people who pass through the dining halls on any given day, it becomes incredibly significant. At the same time, the data collections are heartening. According to Hicks, who worked with Diners We Care to expand Weigh the Waste, “these numbers are way down from last year.”

Mugwisi has his sights set on further expansion; he’s planning another Weight the Waste event for the spring semester. The only problem he currently faces is in getting enough volunteers for each of the shifts – for the last event, he needed about 80, but ended up with only around 60.

Moreover, he has also noticed how hard it is to get people to become involved in ending food waste. “It’s not being seen as an important issue by a lot of people,” Mugwisi says. Deciding whether or not to get an extra 2.43 ounces is a small choice to make, but when combined with all the other small choices, it can have large ramifications.

However, it is possible to nudge students in the right direction. For example, the lack of trays in the dining hall is not without reason. “We noticed that, with trays, people tend to take a little more food than they might actually eat, so this takes out some of that waste,” says Hicks.

The school can also try to make it as easy as possible to make sustainable choices. To that end, green bins for green waste will soon accompany the recycling and trash bins around the campus, so that students can send their napkins, food waste, and similar products to be composted.

Influencing student behavior on a large scale is a big proposition, and it will require much dedication and passion. ASU’s student body, though, seems full of these necessary components.

“I was inspired by how the people were participating in Weigh the Waste, and how curious they were about the program,” says Mugwisi. It’s a sentiment echoed by Hicks: “I think the student interest and involvement in sustainability at ASU has been great.”

Levine adds, “I haven’t had that anywhere else I’ve worked. ASU is unique.”

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