By: Freyja Moser
As part of a generation plagued by environmental destruction and the looming threat of climate change, things can sometimes feel hopeless…as if nothing you can do will make any difference. In reality, each of us can make an impact by simply considering the following: what we eat. Food supply chains have been recognized as contributing slightly over a quarter of human greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture is a leading driver of global biodiversity loss. At Trinity College the food systems we rely on are determined not by us, but by Chartwells, a secondary provider who operates residence dining. Even so, Chartwells is contracted by Trinity College and has a responsibility to listen to student feedback. Trinity College and Chartwells both profess a commitment to sustainability and it is great that they have taken many initiatives in support of this. Still, improvements can always be made and this is driven by student involvement; student feedback in surveys as well as participation in groups like the Student Food Advisory Committee (SFAC) and the Trinity Sustainability Food Systems Research Group (SFSRG) is imperative.
What is a Sustainable Food System?
Eating is an integral part of how we interact with the environment. Food systems are the web of interactions surrounding what and how we eat. Food systems have no fixed boundaries, including but not limited to inputted resources, farming practices, production, transportation costs, methods of distribution, cultural practices, preparation, and disposal. If we are to have a neutral effect on the environment, all parts of food systems must be sustainable.
Although “sustainability” can sometimes feel like a meaningless buzzword, if properly defined it provides important guidelines for how to structure food systems in a way which maintains a responsible relationship with the environment. The rudimentary idea of sustainability is that current human actions should not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability can be considered in terms of the economy, environment, or society. Though these concepts of sustainability may seem vague, it suggests the important goal of maintaining balance. The environment is not a static entity and constantly alternates between different states. Even though the environment changes, however, many processes are cyclical and this maintains a sense of consistency; though conditions may change, they are able to return to their previous state. This ability to regenerate is essential to sustainability.
Our current food systems change environmental conditions to such an extent that it is difficult for previous conditions to be restored. This unsustainability occurs for two reasons: the rate at which traditional agriculture exhausts resources (e.g., carbon in soil) and the amount it destabilizes systems with additional inputs (e.g., fertilizers). Fortunately, there are a lot of things we can do.
Sustainability at Strachan
Chartwells is a food service provider for schools across Canada, including Trinity College. They are responsible for selecting the farms from which we get our food, managing labour at dining halls, and food preparation. Trinity has certain expectations for food services and they work with Chartwells to implement necessary changes. For instance, Trinity used to produce a greater amount of food waste, but changing from an all-you-can-eat dining style to a pre-portioned one reduced this. Some other steps which Chartwells has taken include increasing the number of local, organic and free-trade suppliers. They have taken part in initiatives such as cage-free eggs and provided funding for rooftop gardens. Chartwells also cooks from scratch and does so in batches to minimize food waste. In order to quantify exactly how much Chartwells has done to improve sustainability, more metrics and specific information would be needed though.
At Trinity there are also many exciting sustainability initiatives currently underway, including urban agriculture. The new Lawson Centre for Sustainability, which will be situated between Trinity and the track, will include several rooftop gardens which will be used to supply the dining hall – we will be eating food literally grown right next door/roof! This new building will include community kitchens with multiple stations where students can use the food we grow and participate in workshops. In a discussion with Assistant Provost Prof. Steels, he emphasized the hope “to have students engaged in planning, operations and all of it… to really make it a community effort”. Greater student involvement through these initiatives not only reduces environmental impact, but it can be fun and educational. Aside from sustainability, another aim which Prof. Steels sees the community kitchen and gardens as having is “creating momentum around food, literacy, nutrition, health, and wellness” and helping students think in new ways about what we eat. The more students know about the stories behind their food, the more control they have over food systems and efforts to make them more sustainable.
Challenges to Sustainability
A common criticism of sustainable options is that they are more costly. Obviously unsustainable options cost more in terms of environmental impact, but it is a reality for students that they need to consider financial costs as well. Prof. Steels did not think sustainability initiatives would raise prices for students though. Since lots of these initiatives, like the rooftop gardens, are part of education and experiential learning, existing pools of funding can be used to operate them.
Another challenge to sustainability is uncertainty arising from the pandemic and war in Ukraine. In conversation with Ramata Tarawally, director of community wellness at Trinity, she explained how these global problems have impacted supply chains and made it difficult to get some ingredients like halal meat, milk, and wheat. In order to ensure that there is a reliable supply of food, it is necessary for Chartwells to use larger institutions as food providers. A relevant question to then ask is whether larger farms are as capable as smaller farms at improving sustainability. Smaller farms, for instance, have been known to harbour greater biodiversity than larger farms. If smaller farms are more sustainable, how do we balance sustainability with reliability? This is a challenge without a clear answer.
Other challenges from the pandemic include health and safety standards which have increased disposable packaging as well as difficulty in predicting the amount of food to prepare. At the beginning of the year, Chartwells keeps track of the number of people going through the dining hall in order to project how much food they will need to make each day. With the pandemic, however, these projections are less reliable because the number of people using the dining hall is more variable. The time and effort spent adjusting to the pandemic has also decreased the ability of Chartwells to monitor and report on different sustainability metrics. Careful tracking is important if we are to assess our impact on sustainability and going forward it is highly recommended that Chartwells improves monitoring on issues such as the amount of food waste, the level of biodiversity at farms supplying Trinity and our carbon footprint. These reports should be made accessible to students.
How can Students be Involved?
Environmental destruction will not hit pause because of the pandemic. Drastic changes are needed now and food systems at Trinity provide an excellent opportunity for continued sustainability initiatives. These types of initiatives gain momentum from student involvement. The amount of student feedback about residence food and participation in the SFAC has greatly decreased since the pandemic. This is highly problematic. As Ramata Tarawally stressed, “This is student food service. Talk to us and engage with us about the things to improve. It has to be student driven”. Students care about sustainability, but we need to communicate that: fill out the food survey or feedback form online, go to SFAC meetings, and talk with student food ambassador Asees Sandhu. Another great opportunity is to check out the Trinity SFSRG. Over the summer this group will be hosting gardening events at St. Hilda’s and conducting an experiment on native plant-crop interactions. If you are interested, please check their instagram page and website for updates coming soon. New ways for Trinity students to eat better and more sustainably are coming. With buy-in from students and administration we can make meaningful changes for ourselves and our environment.