Preparing for a Changing Climate with a Feast Down East
How sustainable is your school? Do you find recycling bins in every building? Are there plans to design a greener infrastructure system? Does your dining hall supply local, organic produce, meats and dairy? These are among the many questions schools across the country are asking in order to lessen their carbon footprint and reach carbon neutrality. “Greening” higher education is paving the way forward for some of the largest institutions to empower hundreds of thousands of students with the knowledge they need to understand how to adapt to the changing climate and help spread the need for sustainable living.
This October marks the 10th anniversary of Campus Sustainability Day, a national day of action and reflection on the success of the sustainability movement in higher education. Second Nature, an organization committed to creating a sustainable society by transforming higher education, is hosting a national conversation and encouraging regions and individual campuses to do the same. These conversations will focus on the topic of, “how is higher education preparing students for a changing climate, society and economy?” The broadcast will feature a handful of keynote panelists discussing best practices for creating ecological curriculum, advancing experiential and living laboratory learning, and engaging faculty and the surrounding community in meaningful and critical education.
Each region of the country is doing something different to help bring sustainability home. In the Southeast especially, farm to table (or to dining hall), has become particularly important as a way to not only bring more local, sustainable food to students’ plates, but also a way to help small and limited resource farmers gain access to markets such as restaurants, grocers, hospitals and schools. Feast Down East is an initiative established around Southeastern North Carolina to create a fully integrated local food system. The South Eastern North Carolina Food System (SENCFS) has created projects that provide the link between farmer and buyer such as the Farm-to-Chef Program, where farmers and chefs create working relationships with one another, or the Farm-to-School Program that links farmers to colleges, universities and grade schools.
Located in the heart of Southeastern North Carolina, my Alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), is the lead agent for SENCFS. UNCW enrolls just over 13,000 students in a coastal community dedicated to a sustainable lifestyle. Currently, UNCW’s campus dining invests more than 11 percent of its food budget on locally grown foods. Since Wagoner Hall, UNCW's largest dining facility, spends $150,000 to $200,000 a month on food, even a small percentage of that budget can make a big difference to local farms. Additionally, in spring 2011, UNCW signed on to participate in the 10% Campaign. The campaign encourages individuals and businesses to spend 10 percent of their current food budget locally to help build North Carolina's food economy.
While most of those financial transactions occur behind the scenes, students are still able to see first-hand the changes their university is making to become more sustainably focused in the dining room. Students can access more local food at the Green Spot, an eatery that offers more vegetarian and vegan options. There, they can watch as their food is prepared using fresh, local ingredients. Additionally, UNCW’s Campus Dining hosts the Chef's Table every Thursday at Wagoner Hall to showcase the chefs' skills at transforming ingredients donated by local farmers into a feast. This gives students an opportunity to meet face to face with farmers, and to learn more about what great local foods there are available in the greater Wilmington area.
By the time I graduated from UNCW in 2010, the university was already starting to take greater strides towards sustainable dining. I remember when “Hawks Nest,” one of the small eateries on campus, began using biodegradable plates, utensils and cups made from plant starches. At the time, it was such a concept that the forks and knives didn’t have to end up in a landfill! I also remember the switch to Bio-Pak containers made from recycled paper for students to take their food to-go. I am a little jealous that I missed the locally-inspired chef’s table though- I think that bringing in local farmers to share their produce with students is a fantastic opportunity for students to learn the importance of eating locally and sustainably. I look forward to continuing to see UNCW grow and provide more opportunities for students to eat locally!
Farming and agriculture is a large part of Southeastern North Carolina’s economy and culture. Feast Down East is working hard to integrate that into UNCW’s dining program as well as other local restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. This is an initiative that does not only benefit the students of UNCW and the surrounding Wilmington community, but it would also benefit hundreds of other schools and their communities around the country if similar programs were brought to their regions. Campus Sustainability Day is about providing higher education establishments the opportunity to share what they are doing to lessen their carbon footprint and bring sustainability to students’ hands. It is also an opportunity to partake in a larger discussion to learn what other schools are doing to address the same question of how to prepare for a changing climate.
I encourage all students who want to make a difference at their school to tune in for the broadcast on Wednesday October 24th at 2:00pm EST. Click this link to register for the it—and share it with your community on campus! This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the work that has already been done to address how schools are adapting for a changing climate.
[For more about food and how we use (and waste) it, read my previous blog].
Photo credit: UNCW Campus Dining