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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Dining halls strive for sustainability while Covid-19 guidelines and waste remain a challenge

As student over-enrollment and Covid-19 safety concerns continue to strain Middlebury’s dining services and waste disposal management, dining staff are working to advance sustainable eating programs in all three dining halls on campus. 

The college has worked to create more environmentally sustainable services for several years, but the shift to single-use utensils and to-go containers for part of the 2020–21 academic year was a setback for those efforts.

Although the school continues to improve the sustainability of on-campus food systems, Covid-19 safety concerns last year created challenges for composting and waste management in dining halls. Executive Director of Dining Services Daniel Detora said that before the pandemic, the school was on the right track to manage and improve its sustainable practices. 

“I think pre-Covid, we were really going in the right direction,” Detora said. “I think the biggest challenge we will face is the procurement of the items we are looking for and need.”

The college sources significant portions of its food locally, with 32% of the annual food budget spent on local food options, according to the dining services website. Detora highlighted that most dining hall ground beef is from local farms.

“We use two farms, Cornwall Cattle Company and Lewis Family Farm,” Detora said. “We also purchase some local chicken from Misty Knoll, but they can not meet our high volume needs.”

The school sources some of its local produce from the Knoll, but the student-run organic farm does not yield enough food ingredients to support the high volume of students in dining halls. Produce from the Knoll is used more for catered events rather than for student meals in the dining halls. 

Covid-19 guidelines have made it especially difficult to plate food and single-serve items, like condiments, using compostable plates and silverware. The amount of food waste and garbage “was simply overwhelming,” Detora said, and still remains an issue on campus. 

“I do think that most of the food waste on campus is due to students taking too much food and not eating it,” Detora said. “We do see a tremendous amount of waste in our dish return area.”

In the past, student volunteers have organized events such as Weigh the Waste, a campaign to raise awareness about the amount of food waste at the end of a meal, but the initiative stalled during the pandemic. 

This year, dining staff hope that having reusable containers as part of the sustainability program will reduce one-time utensil waste and provide convenience to students. However, the dining hall staff would like to see improvement in maintaining these reusable containers as students often will not return them promptly. 

“Students clearly do not bring them back, and it is wasteful.” Detora said. “Even when they bring them back at times, the food has been in them for days, and we can't even clean them.”