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Food and campus culture get the spotlight at the latest carbon neutrality forum

March 11, 2020

We break down some of the ways the University of Michigan could reduce food waste, knock down our carbon footprint from food services, and get everyone on board with the daily actions needed to make our campuses more sustainable.

It’s been a year since U-M President Mark Schlissel appointed a special commission to pursue a carbon neutrality goal across the entire University of Michigan system, and in that time, eight “analysis teams” have been hard at work researching how to tackle various parts of that challenge. Recently, two of those teams — the Campus Culture and Communication Analysis Team and the Food Analysis Team — held a town hall on campus to share what they’ve done so far and collect your thoughts about how these topics are impacting UM-Dearborn. Below, we’ve summed up some of the key takeaways from their visit — with some links to join the conversation.

The carbon footprint of food

When it comes to carbon neutrality, the focus tends to be on energy, but food accounts for a really big slice of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Depending on what’s included in the numbers, our food systems make up about a quarter of emissions globally, and our menu choices make a pretty big difference in the overall size of that footprint. For example, over the course of a year, having one extra vegetarian meal a week saves the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles; similarly, replacing beef with chicken on your plate saves 882 pounds of carbon annually. The other big issue: food waste. Right now it’s estimated that we waste about a third of all the food produced for human consumption. When that ends up in landfills, it decomposes, producing methane — a greenhouse gas that’s dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

So what’s the best way to address the GHG footprint of our food system at U-M? Like other analysis teams, the food team began its work with a massive inventory of everything food-related within the U-M system. The headline finding on that front is that we have a pretty fragmented food landscape. One entity, Michigan Dining, runs Ann Arbor's dining halls, while another handles concessions for athletics. The Ross School of Business manages its own food vendors, while Michigan Medicine has both in-house operations for patients and contracted operations for visitors and staff. And at UM-Flint and here at UM-Dearborn, an outside vendor, Picasso, runs the catering and cafes for faculty, staff and students. In addition to mapping who’s in charge of what, the team has also been compiling any food system data we already have (on topics like food procurement, composting and food waste), collecting testimony from U-M food staff and contractors, and studying how other institutions have tackled these challenges.

Given this complexity, the Food Analysis Team is focusing its recommendations on a few key areas. Those include campaigns that can effectively change the behavior of consumers towards more plant-forward options; efforts to prevent food waste, and systems for composting the food waste we do produce; and new vendor standards that encourage or require sustainable practices.

Your take

Many of the above food-related issues disproportionately impact the Ann Arbor campus, but members of the UM-Dearborn community who turned out for the town hall identified a few major opportunities for addressing the food-related GHG footprint on our own campus. Those included reducing unnecessary catering for events; reducing food waste; introducing a composting system to divert food waste from landfills; and requiring vendor contracts to have sustainability standards that match the university’s carbon neutrality goals. 

Have an idea you’d like to include on the list? Send it to Food Analysis Team member Caroline Baloga at cbaloga@umich.edu.

Changing hearts and minds

There’s no getting around the fact that reaching net-zero emissions will take more than changes in policy. At the end of the day, it’s about individual action — and specifically, getting people to adopt routines that may be pretty different from the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. But how exactly do we get the message out? And more importantly, how do we do it in a way that gets people to change their behavior?

This is the fundamental mission of the Campus Culture and Communications Analysis Team. Like the food team, they started their work with an inventory of all the important cultural spaces, events and existing communications tools we have for reaching people, including university entities that are already doing great work in this area, such as student organizations or the Graham Sustainability Institute. In addition, the group is working on a list of recommendations that they’ll send to the U-M President's Commission on Carbon Neutrality next month. One of the big ideas on that list is integrating carbon-reducing actions into nearly all aspects of the campus experience so that sustainable action becomes the norm. On the academic side, this could take shape as more sustainability-focused student projects or a required course focusing on low-carbon lifestyle choices. Another cool idea: A system that rewards people for carbon-reducing actions, like the MHealthy Rewards program does for healthy behaviors. For faculty and staff, the team is also considering a retirement savings system that allows people to easily choose low-carbon or no-carbon investment funds. Another big recommendation is the creation of a central office to guide all these efforts so that top-down resources can support bottom-up ideas.

Your take

Town hall participants shared positive feedback on many of these ideas and added a few specific to UM-Dearborn. For example, they recommended using faculty and staff expertise, or existing programs, like CECS’s Senior Design Competition, to drive campus sustainability projects. A great example of this is UM-Dearborn’s participation in the E-Challenge energy efficiency competition, which the Ann Arbor campus is also in on

Want to weigh in with an idea of your own? Fill out the Campus Culture and Communication Analysis Team survey by April 5, or contact team member Meg Czerwinski at maczerwi@umich.edu.

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If you have thoughts, ideas or questions about any of the university's carbon neutrality efforts, you can submit them to the commission.

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