New student orientation work day in the UMass Permaculture Gardens.

Sustainable campus food: 
For people, planet, and profit

One campus’s discovery that the foodservice industry can serve as a catalyst for regenerative food systems — all while improving the triple bottom line.


Nestled in the heart of the Pioneer Valley sits the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst. Once a modest agricultural college with a class of 50 students, UMass Amherst has since grown into the largest public university in New England, with over 27,000 students studying a wide variety of disciplines. Despite the university’s growth over the years, education around agriculture and the environment has remained a mainstay at UMass Amherst. In recent years, the university has received a number of accolades for an increase in sustainability efforts, climate action, and food justice.

With this momentum behind us, UMass Amherst is focused on serving as a model for sustainable campuses across the nation, and we have found that many institutions are thrilled to blaze the trail toward a healthier and more sustainable future for our students and the world around them. Yet progress rarely comes unchallenged — especially on a college campus. Whether ill intentioned or not, wrenches are still being thrown in the collegiate “eco-cog” in an attempt to stifle our efforts, claiming that environmental stewardship isn’t a viable investment or simply isn’t the responsibility of the institution to fix.

The fact is these very claims hold little bearing when held against the solutions that are developing at UMass Amherst and our collegiate partners. In truth, campuses have enormous potential, if not a responsibility, to combat climate change. Food connects us all, regardless of ethnicity, income, or geography. It is something we all interact with each day. It impacts the health of our bodies, our environment, and our overall happiness.

At the same time, campus foodservices serve millions of students each day. Every meal we serve is an opportunity to impact a generation of future leaders. Accordingly, our educational systems need to start taking decisive measures to tip the scales toward a more sustainable future, so that we might not only sustain our campuses and communities for today, but for generations to come.

We envision a campus, and ultimately a world, that goes beyond sustainability -— and at UMass Amherst, we’re taking the first step toward that vision by starting with our food system. We believe there is a distinct and exciting crossover between sustainability, health, and flavor when it comes to campus foodservices.

First Step: 
The Permaculture Initiative

sustainable-campus-food2

Student work day in UMass’s Franklin Permaculture Garden.

It was in 2010 when we first realized the potential that a strong sustainability program within campus foodservices can have. While most programs at that time were focused strictly on numbers, UMass Dining took a whole-systems approach to sustainability — investing in a community-based project to design and build an on-campus permaculture garden alongside one of our dining commons buildings. We called it The UMass Permaculture Initiative.

Permaculture, in short, is a merger of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” and is a vision for creating a more sustainable world. It is a regenerative design system that involves people working together to create ecological and edible landscapes, low-impact buildings, and sustainable communities and economies.

The UMass Permaculture Initiative is changing the way students interact with their food and surroundings with the creation of on-campus permaculture gardens. This initiative has brought together students from all academic realms, as well as faculty, staff, and community members to convert underutilized grass lawns on the campus into edible, educational, and biodiverse gardens. Our inaugural garden is one of the first student-led permaculture gardens on a public university campus in the nation that supplies food directly to its campus dining services.

The UMass Permaculture Initiative helped bring UMass Amherst into the international spotlight as a sustainable leader. Our gardens initiative won eight national awards in 2012 alone and were awarded nearly $100,000 in grants, awards, and donations. We won first place in the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge and were invited to Washington, D.C., to be recognized by President Obama.

The adoption of this program helped shift the way that UMass Amherst and many other dining programs came to value sustainability programs. While maintaining the bottom line remains a priority, UMass Amherst permaculture lends intangible value to UMass Dining by engaging the public and campus community with this exciting sustainability program. Within months of developing our first garden, prospective students were citing the permaculture initiative as their deciding factor to attend UMass Amherst.

Sustainable Food Chain

Four gardens later, more student-led food sustainability projects were in the works. As a result of a staff-student collaboration, in May 2013 UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy signed on to the Real Food Challenge Campus Commitment, making UMass Amherst the largest campus foodservice in the nation to make this commitment. This document, designed by a national campaign and advocated by university students, commits UMass Amherst to sourcing at least 20 percent Real Food by the year 2020. Real food is defined as ecologically sound, community based, fair trade, and/or humanely raised. An initial baseline audit, run by students in collaboration with UMass Dining staff, revealed that UMass Amherst spent $1.6 million on Real Food in FY13 alone. To meet our long-term goal, however, UMass Amherst will need to more than double our spending on local and sustainable foods — but we are well on our way.

One lesson we’ve learned lies in the way we prepare food. While sustainable procurement can buy you brownie points in the eyes of your customer, it doesn’t correlate to customer satisfaction unless you’re taking taste into account. And so, UMass Dining has begun to redesign our menus, recognizing that health, sustainability, and great taste are inextricably linked — all while falling within a tight budget. It’s no simple task, but with some creative purchasing, an affordable yet deliciously sustainable menu is easily produced.

In many cases, purchasing locally has worked to our economic advantage. In our recent shift from conventionally raised eggs to local, cage-free eggs, UMass Dining saved money in the process. Overall, the university has increased local produce purchases from 8 percent to nearly 30 percent in less than a decade.

The learning curve has taught us creative problem solving as well. For example, one large farm two miles from the UMass Amherst campus serves as a broker for 25 other local farms throughout the year, thereby streamlining the supply chain and making it possible to efficiently, and cost effectively, source more food from the local economy.

But because the student body at UMass Amherst is so attuned to the sustainability movement, UMass Dining sources locally even when purchasing from small producers proves slightly more costly than sourcing from large-scale distributors. Interestingly, fulfilling these kinds of student demands has coincided with an increase in our meal plan enrollments and customer satisfaction.

In addition, the cost of transporting dining waste to a local farm for composting is actually cheaper than landfill or incinerator alternatives in the area, making this reciprocal partnership between the university and community both financially and environmentally sound.

UMass Dining began making significant progress on our farm-to-institution program when we were approached with grant funding to design the UMass Healthy and Sustainable Food System. With $485,000 to be funded over two years, UMass Dining is converting one of our on-campus facilities (Hampshire Dining Commons) into a premier campus eatery dedicated to sustainability, health, and wellness, while providing a defensible and cost-effective example for other institutions to emulate.

A Worldwide Issue

In order to contextualize UMass Dining’s sustainability values for our customers, we seek to educate our student body about the global issues surrounding sustainability and health today.

The agricultural sector is the second-highest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. We are already experiencing increased volatility in our weather patterns and extremes are becoming the new norm. Rather than arguing about climate change, we need to adapt and create a more localized and sustainable food system. Accordingly, the UMass Sustainable and Healthy Food System project significantly reduces our GHG emissions by sourcing more local foods and supporting small and sustainable farms and fisheries.

Some of the world’s greatest health challenges today can be directly connected to our food system. Forecasts project a 33 percent increase in obesity prevalence and a 130 percent increase in severe obesity prevalence over the next two decades. If these forecasts prove accurate, this will likely result in alarming rates of diseases, increased costs to the health care system, and more. To reverse these trends, UMass Dining is: 1) Reducing consumption of red meat, processed and fatty foods, corn syrup, and sodium at Hampshire Dining Commons and 2) Increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and healthy beverages.

Finally, industrial monoculture produces a tremendous amount of produce, but it is of suboptimal quality. One explanation for this is unhealthy soil. Previous efforts to meet rising demand for food through monoculture farming have given rise to depleted soil, creating food that is now nutritionally deficient and hence less prone to preventing disease in humans.

At UMass Dining, we strive to not only serve healthy and sustainable foods, but the best tasting. That means we support farms that understand the importance of good-soil practices. The healthier the soil, the healthier (and tastier) the foods will be.

Our passionate and knowledgeable staff are developing new creative meals that promote a balanced diet using local, sustainably grown foods. The revised seasonable menu includes recipes that leverage world cuisines to entice students to try new foods and to help them permanently adopt a healthier diet.

We will continue to work together as a campus to build a robust local and sustainable food system at UMass Amherst; not only because it’s the right thing to do but because our students demand it. Highly visible food sustainability programs added tremendous value to our dining services and our institution as a whole. By valuing sustainability, the programs we’ve developed provide incredible service learning opportunities for our students, build community around solving today’s pressing global issues, and lighten our campus’s carbon footprint — all while adhering to fiscal responsibility. While we still have a long way to go, the more we keep the bigger picture in mind, the more creative and successful our programs will be.


Rachel Dutton
Rachel Dutton is the sustainability manager with University of Massachusetts Amherst Auxiliary Enterprises where she coordinates programs focused on sustainable sourcing and food production, waste reduction, and educating students.

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