Part 3: What’s eating UDS?

Individual responsibility plays a major role in college dining.

Brian Reinken

Over the past two weeks, I’ve addressed the nutritional and corporate aspects of college dining. In this final installment, I’ll discuss environmental issues, before addressing the individual’s responsibility to maintain an agreeable dining system.

My elementary school had a memorable program designed to reduce food waste. When students finished eating our meals, we would walk over to a series of three large bins. Two were for the traditional garbage and recycling, and the third was for food waste.

Farmers would purchase the final bucket’s contents and use it to feed their livestock, especially their pigs. The grade-schoolers nicknamed it “the pig bucket.”

Numerous schools in the metropolitan area employ variations on this program. Students in Roseville, Oakdale and St. Paul learn a simple way to be more environmentally conscious. At the same time, they’re taught to play a more active role in their dining process.

Waste reduction programs, of course, go beyond such humble endeavors. The University of Minnesota has plenty of measures in place to enhance environmental sustainability.

For example, University Dining Services uses ionized water as a substitute for traditional chemical cleaners. This process, called “Blue Cleaning,” is said to be 99.9 percent effective in sanitizing surfaces, and it does not produce any hazardous chemical byproducts.

UDS has also worked to introduce biodegradable packaging, and it directs much of its non-food waste to compost piles instead of garbage dumps.

These are commendable behind-the-scenes advances, but there are ways students can directly participate, too. The next time students want some ice cream, they can choose a washable plastic bowl instead of the disposable cups next to the ice cream machine.

Students should also try to minimize the number of plates and glasses they use during their meals. Even if Blue Cleaning doesn’t use chemicals, it still takes plenty of water to wash the dishes, and everything UDS conserves eases the strain on the environment.

Furthermore, if they want to eat in a campus restaurant, students should try to take their drink without a straw and plastic lid. These are great if you want to take your drink with you when you leave, but if they’re going no farther than the dining room, students can choose to use less plastic at the cost of convenience.

Getting involved makes the difference between meaningful change and empty gestures. The University has certain programs in place, but many of these can be only as effective as we make them.

That’s why the “pig bucket” has stayed with me for more than a decade. As simple as it was, it turned food from an object into a subject for consideration.

Food on the brain

The idea of individual responsibility has arisen time and again throughout these columns on dining, and it’s the individual who makes the biggest difference in the end.

Certainly it’s easy to ignore what happens in the kitchen. On a personal level, all students take their meals while thinking where they must rush immediately after finishing. On a national level, turnover rates in the food service industry are among the highest in any sector.

Students working for the University’s dining program may see their position as one of those infamous college jobs, something through which they slog to put themselves through school. The position is temporary, and once the work is over, students have little reason to look back.

But that apathetic attitude toward food and food service helps perpetuate the country’s fast-food obsession and obesity epidemic. It also leads to a cycle of worker mistreatment. Ignoring a problem is not enough to make it go away. Placidly accepting a problem as part of life is contrary to the mindset that a college education seeks to cultivate.

Food, in short, cannot be merely what we eat. If students spend so much time and money on their meals, it’s senseless not to pay them more attention.

For all its pitfalls and shortcomings, college dining has the potential to be a very positive experience, albeit one that won’t necessarily be pre-packaged and hand-delivered without active effort. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual not only to compliment the system on what works, but also to think critically and make suggestions about how the University could improve.

This is citizenship on a local, if not personal, level. It’s something that schools can easily teach to children, and even in small doses, it helps to improve eating habits, environmentalism and civic activism.

Really, what could be more palatable than that?