By Hope S. Philbrick
Black and gold are the official colors of Kennesaw State University, but its commitment to sustainability is pure green.
The university has recognized the importance of sustainability and environmentally sound practices in the hospitality industry, so much so that it established the Michael A. Leven School for Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality in 2013. The school and its bachelor’s of science in culinary sustainability and hospitality incorporates the study of sustainable best practices into its curricula, emphasizing areas like food science, nutrition, agro-ecology, resource conservation and business, preparing a new generation of culinary professionals who understand the innate connection between the land we live on and the food that we eat.
“We offer a culinary hospitality management program similar to what you’d find at other universities, but we’ve woven sustainable business practices throughout the program,” says Christian Hardigree, founding director and professor of KSU’s Michael A. Leven School for Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality. “Students get ingrained with thinking about sustainability, and it will make these individuals more competitive in the marketplace.”
The need for this education focus is fact-based, says Hardigree. “We’re going to have a population boom; by 2050 there will likely be 9 billion people on the planet,” she says.“We don’t have the food sourcing ability to accommodate that boom.”
She cites other concerns, like food waste and landfill methane gas, that are driving the next generation of chefs and restaurant owners toward sustainable thinking.
“Each year Americans waste $155 billion worth of food, an average of 20 pounds per person each month,” she says. “If we can cut that down by just 15 percent, we could feed the 25 million Americans living in food insecure homes – that’s one in five homes in Georgia.
“Another issue with food waste is that it’s the No. 1 material in landfills, and it gives off methane gas that’s more damaging to the environment than carbon monoxide – worse than cows,” she adds. “We have to figure out how to get food waste out of the landfills.”
KSU doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks it, too, with its dining facility. As the third-largest university in Georgia (it consolidated with Southern Polytechnic State University in 2015), the school educates 74,000 students from 130 countries on two campuses in Kennesaw and Marietta.
To feed all those people, there’s The Commons, the nation’s largest LEED-Gold certified collegiate dining facility. The 54,000-square-foot facility serves more than 30,000 people per week. It along with eight other establishments on campus have won national recognition, including “Innovator of the Year” and “Operator Innovations Award for Sustainability” from the National Restaurant Association in 2013 and a No. 4 rank among the “75 Best Colleges for Food in America” by The Daily Meal in 2015. (KSU also won the Innovator GRACE Award in 2013 for its sustainability efforts.)
This isn’t your average college dining hall. Forty percent of all the produce served in the facility is locally sourced, with 20 percent coming directly from KSU-owned farms. All milk served on campus travels only 60 miles to the school. The dining hall also has a 2,500-square-foot on-site herb garden and shiitake mushroom garden, an on-site grist mill for fresh grits and cornmeal, locally sourced meats, and chickens on KSU farms that produce more than 300 eggs per week.
The facility, which opened in 2009, also makes all sauces, stocks and soups without any bases or MSG; brines its own pastrami, corned beef and pickles; and smokes, cures and dry-ages all meats, sausages and cheeses like aged Romano and pecorino. KSU students are eating very well indeed.
Sustainable initiatives were in place at KSU before it became part of the curriculum. “We built sustainability practices into the foodservice program from the beginning,” says Jenifer Duggan, senior director of Culinary & Hospitality Services. KSU regularly implements new practices and technologies in sustainable food production, including composting, vermicomposting, hydroponics, recycling cooking oil for biofuel, water reclamation and more.
“We focus on energy and resource conservation and water preservation,” says Duggan. KSU’s comprehensive waste management program includes recycling (of aluminum, plastic, metal, cardboard, fat, oils and grease) – more than 307,000 pounds to date – and composting all pre- and post-consumer organic waste.
“We compost anything from the kitchen that isn’t used [that’s not able to be repurposed into stock, broth or soup], and everything that is served but not eaten,” she says. A robust 60,000 pounds per month on average is composted. “We’ve been using a composting service for six years but will start doing it in-house instead, which will not only have a cost savings but we’ll be able to utilize all our waste on our farm to grow food served in the dining hall, creating a closed-loop practice.”
The effort to reduce waste starts by eliminating the opportunity for it. “One of the things we implemented from the beginning that seems to confuse some people is we don’t use trays in our dining hall,” says Duggan. “It reduces water consumption by up to a third and encourages smaller portion sizes, which reduces waste in terms of the food served.” Reusable take-out containers also keep biodegradable containers out of the waste stream and out of landfills.
“We’ve gone to smaller plates and portions,” says Hardigree, adding that smaller portions cut down on food waste and is a growing trend across the hospitality industry. “We see small plates making a big change again, with the aging population as well as millennials’ preference for tasting. These two segments want different options when it comes to their food.”
Other savings come with small-batch cooking. “In a lot of operations of this size, cooks and chefs will prepare large quantities of food that will be served at the start of service and held for several hours, which brings the nutritional content and food quality down,” says Duggan. “We cook as we go, which reduces food waste.” Energy-efficient equipment also helps reduce energy consumption.
Just-in-time ordering also helps reduce waste. “You won’t see as much spoilage,” says Duggan. What’s more, growing food reduces purchasing needs. In addition to the 25-acre farm, KSU grows food in hydroponic units in the dining hall. “We are able to produce lettuce and herbs that can be harvested and served the same day,” says Duggan. About 700 heads of lettuce are harvested every couple of weeks. “We’ve also had a lot of success with basil.”
“Our students learn about growing organic food and how honeybees affect the food supply – one of every three bites of food we take is because of bees,” says Hardigree. Hands-on learning also helps students understand the context of how water affects the food supply.
Future initiatives include expanding the farm program. “Currently there’s over 10,000 square feet of in-house hydroponic space, which enables us to produce and grow tomatoes year-round, which is one of the things we use the most,” says Duggan. The Marietta campus offers expansion opportunities: Duggan anticipates adding “perhaps some new raised beds, new community gar-dens” and other farming options.
In a new partnership program with Georgia Tech, students will test a compost operation that uses black solder flies, the larvae of which eat food scraps and turn them into compost at a much faster rate than if the food was left to compost on its own.
“By feeding food waste to the larvae in this innovative program, we can turn food waste into organic material that can be turned into usable compost,” says Duggan. This is expected to speed up the composting process from its current six weeks to just a few days.
The aim is to continue to achieve more. “It’s a continuum we’re always trying to improve upon,” says Hardigree. “KSU had already done some great things in terms of sustainability, but I think the collaboration between functional and academic studies has allowed us to refine and improve.”
Trying out new technologies, says Hardigree, gives KSU “the chance to become the epicenter for best practices.”
With 1,000 students graduating from the program since 2013, with 251 more enrolled this year, such success can only bring good news for Georgia’s restaurant industry.