Food and environment course examines sustainability of student cafés

Studying, chatting with a friend over a sandwich and smelling the aroma of freshly brewed coffee often bring fond memories of time spent in campus cafés while sharing the events of college life. A group of UChicago students may one day similarly remember the rewarding engagement they experienced while taking the College course, “Food and Environment Practicum: Research on Campus Cafés.”

The practicum, a project aimed at making the student-run cafés—the Cobb, Ex Libris, Hallowed Grounds and Harper cafés—more sustainable, was a College course offered by the Environmental Studies and Public Policy Studies programs during Autumn Quarter 2015. The Office of Sustainability initiated the idea for the course.

More than just an educational opportunity, the practicum made public policy student Jeremy Pushkin “ultra-satisfied about the creative experience and the tangible impact” of his participation in the project. The work of Pushkin and his classmates culminated in a report issued by the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, a project partner, which gave recommendations on topics ranging from food waste management to consumer outreach.

The practicum took the students out of the classroom to learn about food service operations and their sustainability options. They learned how to find out whether a vendor uses environmentally friendly packaging, how to measure the water flow in the sinks behind the counter, how to manage waste and how to perform an energy audit.

They grappled with real-life challenges, like assessing the energy consumption of a toaster whose identifying label is scratched off, and the building safety codes that prevent them from shutting off all lights at day’s end.

The recommendations

The 26-page final report of Project Cafés included recommendations regarding potential partners, appliances, food sourcing and food waste management, consumer education, internal education, and peer review. Among the recommendations:

  • Continue the project during the 2016-2017 academic year and use the report to outline a comprehensive, campus-wide sustainable dining initiative.
  • Have each café conduct a full energy audit to identify suitable replacements for equipment where applicable.
  • Compost inedible food.
  • Establish a regular method for donating unsold food.
  • Provide sustainability training to all café personnel.
  • Review the initiatives of peer academic institutions in Chicago for those most feasible for adoption on UChicago’s campus.

Initially, the students identified the relevant factors to make the project feasible in a real-life, time- and budget-constrained environment. Would a competition among consumers help to reduce food waste? Or should the cafes offer more vegan, vegetarian and organic options? Is the latter primarily a health-related benefit or does it also carry a significantly smaller environmental footprint as it reduces the amount of harmful chemicals that would otherwise be released into the environment?

The students investigated the life cycle of products, which is the assessment of environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, and decided which held potential for substantial improvement in the cafes’ sustainability. It was a lively phase, said Eloise Karlatiras, CEO of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition. The students not only learned about the “‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ of sustainable dining operations, but their inquisitive minds sought to understand the ‘whys’ of the recommendations we routinely provide,” she said.

The practicum was a collaboration among the Office of Sustainability; the Environment, Agriculture and Food Working Group, led by practicum lecturer and director Sabina Shaikh; the GCRC, which provided professional expertise; and the Center for Leadership and Involvement, whose mission is to create leadership opportunities for students.

“The purpose of a practicum course is to establish applications for students to engage in methods of inquiry outside of a traditional model of homework and exams,” Shaikh said. “This was an ideal opportunity to do that on campus, in a setting that is very familiar to students in a recreational, but not yet an academic way.”

‘Perfect storm’

The collaboration and the enthusiasm students have for sustainability was “a perfect storm of things coming together at the right time,” said David McEvers, coffee shop coordinator.

At the same time, the experience honed some fundamental skills that students will leverage in future endeavors. “Flexibility and the ability to respond to any challenge that comes along are instrumental to leadership,” said Andrea Clinton, a fourth-year environmental studies major.

More ambitious recommendations are being considered and form the basis for scaling up and achieving long-lasting sustainability practices across campus, said Mike Stopka, director of the Office of Sustainability.

“We want to empower students, faculty and staff to be able to make sustainable choices,” Stopka said. “For example, education about the Energy Star Certification, which lists energy-saving products, will enable choosing new sustainable appliances each time it is needed. Or, by leveraging the relationships we built during this project, our partners are more likely to give us a call when looking for sustainable solutions.”

Practicum students may one day receive a similar call to be invited back on campus to enjoy a sustainable cup of coffee. And they may remember the time they learned about sustainability, life-cycle analysis, leadership, group dynamics, independent thinking and ultimately the empowering core of sustainability: local impact.