An Environmentally and Culturally Sustainable Dining System (2011)
2012 World Environment Day Contest
Verde Valley School
Sedona, Arizona, USA
Grades 9 through 12
An Environmentally and Culturally Sustainable Dining System
Brief Project Description
As a collaboration between students, faculty, staff, and campus administration, the kitchen at Verde Valley School has been working on a project to overhaul the school’s dining services, with the goal of providing our educational community with food that is mindful of the planet, health, and environmental justice. As our own school shows great success, we hope to share our practices and improvements with the surrounding schools and community members in our region.
Verde Valley School (VVS) is an international boarding high-school located in rural Arizona, priding itself on its mission to foster academic excellence, service to others, world citizenship, physical labor, and environmental stewardship. Our 102 students hail from all parts of the globe, and we have the unique opportunity to learn, educate and instill knowledge in our students that will disseminate across the planet. Because our students travel to and from the country several times per year, they have a true sense of globalization as well as a heightened awareness of just how small the planet truly is. This exposure, combined with the beauty of the surrounding Southwestern landscapes, helps to fuel their passion for preserving the environment.
The Environmentals, the primary student environmental group at Verde Valley School, continue to build on the work that was stared on Earth Day many years ago. Each year on Earth Day, we focus on an element of environmental stewardship that we can actually control and implement in our community: in past years, VVS took measures campus-wide to create awareness of the many environmental injustices that the plague our planet. We offered a day long Environmental Film Fest, during which we continually ran films about many subjects, including water awareness, over-fishing our seas, waste and recycling, climate change, social injustices and fair trade. These films were all shown in a public space in our community, allowing for VVS students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding Northern Arizona community to be a part of the screenings. Believing that education is a powerful tool, we used the day to inform viewers, and aimed to spark the activist in each of us. Indeed; the conversation was started, and the passions grew in many of our students and faculty.
Over the following years, we began to pinpoint the specific steps we could take and implement in our community. We tackled water usage and we introduced the concept of “zero-waste” community and how to start a movement for change. Now, we have turned to the industrial food system on campus and have worked on an overhaul of our campus dining services, a collaboration between students, faculty, and staff.
As a boarding school, our kitchen serves all three meals to all students and faculty, everyday, totaling 2850 meals a week while school is in session. Our dining hall and kitchen’s carbon footprint is second only to student transportation (our students travel from all over the globe). It is for this reason that we chose to target our campus dining services as the next major project of the Environmentals.
Detailed Project Description
We began by assessing the entire kitchen operations, looking at waste and how it is handled, deliveries and efficiency, energy use, equipment and, of course, the food itself. Students collected operations data, including the amount of food waste we were sending to the landfill, and the propane and electricity use. These data were combined with an assessment by our food service manager, it was clear that we must change our standard operating procedures.
So change we have! To date, we are now a 100% composting kitchen. We have transitioned from producing 30 pounds of food waste each day going to the landfill, to zero pounds. We compost all cooked food waste and vermicompost our kitchen scraps. We recycle all metal, glass and plastic containers and have altered our buying practices and now buy in bulk, thus doing our best to eliminate these packing materials whenever possible. These waste reduction practices are a joint effort between our kitchen staff and students. Our student composting team introduced the idea for composting on campus, and now provides all the labor for pick-up and maintains the composting process on a daily basis. The kitchen staff works to supervise these efforts. These changes have eliminated the need to use plastic trashcan-liners, and has reduced the amount that we send to the landfill by 80%.
Next, we looked at the equipment in our aging kitchen. We eliminated the use of an energy-hog inefficient oven and instead turned to other ovens in our kitchen which operate more efficiently. We also replaced our reach-in refrigerator with a new Energy Star model.
As our community is located 90 miles from a major city, our frequent food delivery service was our next area of concern. The VVS kitchen manager assessed the school’s needs, storage space, and delivery schedule and was able to reduce campus’ deliveries from five per week to one single delivery each week, thus saving tremendous quantities of fossil fuels in the transportation of our campus’ food.
Next we tackled the food itself! Our first step was to introduce organic produce to our menu, starting with by purchasing the dirty dozen (the twelve foods most saturated with chemical pesticides and/or herbicides) organically. We eliminated foods that contain any artificial sugars, such as powdered-drink mixes, and continue the battle to purchase only foods that do not contain high fructose corn syrup and working to provide only non-GMO (especially difficult, as labeling is not required in the US) and it is our school’s way to protest monocultures which are generally crops that are saturated with chemicals and deplete the soil of all nutrients. The kitchen manager has expanded our number of vendors, and the VVS kitchen now purchases our food from the closest sources possible to reduce our food’s miles, and focuses our menus based on foods that are in season.
As a student and kitchen collaboration, we have learned that the single most effective food-based environmental practice is to reduce our meat consumption. Thus, we have greatly expanded our vegetarian menu (reducing the amount of meat we purchase and consume) to the point that many carnivore prefer this option. We also purchase a growing percentage of the meat we serve from local ranchers that graze their cattle on grass, rather feeding petroleum-dependent grain.
Lastly, because our kitchen serves a great number of international students, the kitchen now works to incorporate a diverse menu of homemade international foods; this helps to provide the comforts of home, as well as to offer an opportunity for intercultural understanding when dishes are served from other cultures. In this way, the kitchen is able to combine Verde Valley School’s mission of environmental stewardship with its mission for world citizenship, using healthy food to engage the community in intercultural understanding.
Outcome and Next Steps
Our plans for the coming year are to take our environmental initiatives in the dining hall even further. VVS is in the beginning stages of collaborating with other schools, as well as with our expert local farmers and ranchers, in the area to take the steps to state-certify our campus’ experimental organic garden and then begin to serve the food we grow in our own dining hall. We are also taking steps to expand our school’s work-job program to include student involvement in all aspects of our school kitchen – from growing, to cooking, to cleaning-up – to better prepare them to take a healthy and environmentally-conscious approach to food preparation and consumption after their graduations. Our last goal for the coming year is to incorporate the food we eat with the curriculum that is being taught in the classrooms. These plans align nicely with three of Verde Valley School’s five guiding principles: Environmental Stewardship, the Value of Physical Labor and World Citizenship.
As the "Western Diet" spills across the US borders and creeps into other countries around the world, we see this environmentally-focused food project as an unparalleled opportunity to educate the members of our community on the ramifications of industrial farming, monocultures, crop subsidies, and genetically modified seeds, for our earth and its peoples. Verde Valley School students hale from all parts of the globe, and are inherent critical thinkers. This project has encouraged them to see the food we eat in a new way, has sparked conservation and raised questions such as, “Is this nation’s current food model sustainable for the earth?”, “What are the pros and cons of genetically modified seed?”, and, “How does the Western Diet affect indigenous diets and culture around the world?” The students, faculty and staff involved in this project overwhelmingly agree that it is a great success, and that it will continue and expand to the next steps.
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