Sustainability in Colgate’s Dining Halls: Cutting Waste and Cutting Lines

It’s no secret that the on-campus dining facilities at Colgate are having a bit of a moment right now. A single serving of chicken alfredo pasta at Frank now often mandates a 10-minute wait. Ordering a quick bite from Hieber Cafe or Donovan’s Pub can sometimes turn into an hour-plus affair. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. Colgate hasn’t been very transparent as to what is going on behind the scenes of its various dining halls, but there is a sense among students that things are in a state of absolute bedlam. J.S. Hope ’97, Colgate’s Chief Investment Officer and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration, recently sent out an email that attributed the recent shortcomings of Frank Dining Hall to the current “supply chain issues” and the “national labor shortage.” These issues might seem too macro for Colgate to address head on, but fear not. There is a clear-cut road towards dining hall salvation: increasing sustainability.

Colgate has made a respectable effort to increase dining hall sustainability in the past few years, but the university could be doing more. Giving credit where it is due, Colgate has made a significant commitment to stocking dining halls with reusable plates and utensils, and ensuring that non-reusable items are compostable. But, honestly, that is the bare minimum. Every college dining hall in the country is doing that right now. For the good of the environment and ourselves, Colgate needs to step it up a notch on two fronts: preventing food waste and increasing expenditures on local producers.

Food waste is probably the more noticeable and easily fixable of the two. The conveyor belt of spent food plates at Frank is sort of a microcosm for food armageddon. Plates, napkins, and cups, strewn everywhere. Half-eaten portions of food all over the place—accumulating on the sides of the belt and coalescing into a repugnant sludge. This school can do better. A good place to start might be to have dining hall staff pre-prepare plates of food rather than stick to the all-you-can-eat buffet format. The Coop does this sometimes with the wrap station and various other pre-made meals, and it works to great effect. The inherent nature of a pre-made plate of food ensures that people don’t end up putting too much food on their plate—food that, more likely than not, would end up as waste. This also makes it easier for dining staff who wouldn’t constantly have to be cleaning up the chickpea medley troth after the 47th spill of the day. Less waste means less cleanup which means less weight on the employees’ shoulders, and the positive benefits continue to trickle down from there. Pre-made food plates are popping up with greater frequency at dining locations across campus (mostly at Coop and Chobani), and they are tentative steps in the right direction. The point is, though, that we need to start seeing more initiatives similar to this and with more widespread implementation.

Colgate also needs to increase the amount of money it spends on local products. Their current stance is such: “Nearly 30 percent of Colgate’s food expenditures are on local and/or sustainably sourced food, and the University seeks to improve this in the coming years” (“Sustainable Food & Dining”). Why wait? True, it’s probably not sustainable to make the jump all the way to the range of 80-90 percent of the food budget on local products, but 30 percent is pretty low. There are certainly a lot of logistics that go into those decisions, but for a school like Colgate—one that is firmly entrenched and connected with its surrounding community—it doesn’t seem crazy to assume that the University could bump that percentage up to at least 40 by the end of this year. “How is this going to bring back the omelet bar?” you might be asking. The truth is, increasing expenditures on local food suppliers isn’t going to have as immediate an impact on the dining experience as other measures, but that doesn’t at all mean it isn’t worth considering. Buying locally stimulates the local economy, and that would be seriously beneficial in a time of uncertainty in national labor markets. 

It is about time that Colgate takes their dining sustainability policies with the serious attention that they deserve. As students, we have enough on our plates as it is—this dining hall drama is an extra annoyance that nobody wants to add to the laundry list of other things we’re dealing with. And, much more importantly, the dignified workers of Colgate’s dining services deserve better. Increasing dining sustainability will take some weight off of their shoulders. After all, a person can only lug so many vegetable medley troths back and forth in a day.