Green Fees. The Office of Sustainability. Green CofC. Sustainable practices are the new focus of student groups and the administration, but when it comes to food, the College’s food service provider, Aramark, is saying one thing, and doing another.
As Tavner Myers walked from station-to-station in Liberty Street Fresh Food Company, he quickly reaffirmed his speculations. Myers, along with three other classmates, were on a tour of the cafeteria for a group project in one of their classes. They were researching the topic of food sustainability on campus. Their discoveries were not at all surprising to them as they initially assumed their research would show unsatisfactory results.
John Crowe, a representative from Aramark, led the tour. According to Myers, when his group made inquiries about food sustainability on campus, Crowe said, “I don’t know what we are doing.”
Aramark, a food service provider company, is exclusively contracted with the College. While the company publicly promotes its initiatives in sustainability, Myers and his classmates said they discovered possible acts of greenwashing while on their tour of the cafeteria.
The term “greenwashing” comes from the term “whitewashing,” which is the attempt of hiding unpleasant facts. In an environmental context, the term “greenwashing” can be defined along the same lines. While a company or organization may claim to be “green” through its marketing strategies, the actual implementation of such practices are not always truthful.
Myers and his classmates took a closer look at Aramark after they suspected the company of possible greenwashing when they were working on a project for a political science special topic course about sustainability last academic year. According to the College’s Dining Services Web page under the sustainability tab, Aramark claims to have a “deep respect for and commitment to protecting and improving
the environment.” Some of the sustainable measures the company mentioned involved: “Sustainable Food: Local, Organic, Sustainably Certified, Natural, etc.,” “Free Buildings: LEED Alignment from Design to Operations,” “Waste Management: RecycleMania, Zero Waste, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Composting,” “Responsible Procurement: Environmentally Sensitive Purchasing Decisions,” “Energy and Water Conservation: Reduction, Technical Solutions, Renewable Energy, etc.,” and “Transportation: Minimization, Alternative Fuels, Mass Transportation, Maintenance, etc.”
This is not the first time Aramark’s practices have raised eyebrows. Back in 2006, Aramark turned down the opportunity to rebid on its contract with Duke University. According to The Chronicle, the school’s student newspaper, Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst, said Aramark’s decision came quite unexpectedly. Whatever may have sparked Aramark’s decision to not rebid, speculations have been made surrounding several votes of “no confidence” made by Duke Student Government. Such votes were made on grounds that the company denied transparency and lacked adequate food quality and service. Aramark declined to comment on the matter. Instead, the company would only send The George Street Observer a statement highlighting its “green” initiatives on the College’s campus.
The Claim of Sustainable Waste Management
One of the sustainable measures Aramark claimed the company was doing involved waste management, specifically with the advertisement of compostable materials, such as the cups and lids at City Bistro. However, the College does not have a composting site on campus. With the amount of waste produced every single day, Myers said there is not a site on campus capable of taking on such a large amount of waste. These materials, which are capable of being composted, are instead ending up in a landfill.
Although Aramark declined to comment on questions regarding the lack of a composting site on campus, the company sent The George Street Observer a statement about a device called a waste-pulper. In the statement, Aramark said, “Our pulper uses recycled water to carry waste such as disposable service-ware and food scraps to a grinder. It then extracts the moisture to produce a dry pulp. This pulp has the ability to be composted.” While the device would help with the process of composting, the lack of a composting site would make the use of the device and such materials useless. So far, a device that cost the College $40,000 has not accomplished what it was meant for.
Jan Brewton, Director of Business and Auxiliary Services, reaffirmed what Myers said. She said, “Right now [all the waste] just goes to the dumpsters.”
However, she is working on solving the problem by looking for an outside collection partner to take all the waste to a composting site. She said the next step is to open up offers to the public in order to receive a bid, and that the process should be completed sometime next semester. She said, “We are going as quickly as we can.”
Another concern raised deals with the amount of energy the waste pulper requires to operate. While the device may help reduce waste volume, it could be creating an even larger carbon footprint with the energy required to operate it.
Brian Fisher, Director of the Office of Sustainability and the political science professor who taught the class in which Myers and his classmates researched their project, said that many people often neglect to look at the whole “life cycle” of such devices. He said, “I think that part of the issue is that we don’t, as a society, look at a life cycle analysis when determining if something is sustainable. Such as: how it is used, where the pieces come from and who made it. We don’t look at it that way.”
While Aramark declined to comment on the amount of energy required to operate the waste pulper, Brewton said, “I don’t know the specs on it, but the water is definitely recycled.”
The Claim of Sustainable Food
On their website, Aramark said it has “menus that emphasize fresh whole foods that are raised, grown, harvested and produced locally and/or sustainably wherever possible, and prepared in ways that respect and maintain quality, freshness and pureness.” While Aramark claims its menus “emphasize” sustainable food, how much of the produce is actually local and fresh?
Aramark would not answer this question. When The George Street Observer asked Aramark who it bought its produce from and how much of it was local and fresh, the company only replied, “We purchase numerous
products from local farmers and suppliers across the region, including produce, dairy and seafood. We use locally grown produce based on seasonality. The local growing season for a majority of produce is limited (June-September) at a time when we typically have less students on campus.”
Not only could Aramark not even name a single local farm where it got its food from, it even admitted the majority of local produce was only available during the summer when less students are eating on campus.
Brewton, however, was able to name a few local food providers. She mentioned names such as Limehouse Produce, Crosby’s Seafood and Coburg. Like Aramark, Brewton said the amount of local food available to Aramark is seasonal. However, she could not provide any approximate percentages on the amount of local food being used, at its low point or even high point. She said, “I seriously don’t have a clue.”
Myers and his classmates addressed this concern during their tour of the cafeteria with Crowe. Myers said, “His bottom line was that there is no way Aramark could get all local food. We even asked farmers from the Farmers Market if they would sell to the College and they said they couldn’t because they aren’t big enough to provide Aramark with fresh tomatoes every single day of the year.”
Also on their website, Aramark mentioned it used “sustainably certified” food. But what does “sustainably certified” actually mean? During the tour, Myers asked the same question. He said, “Crowe said Aramark was sustainably certified, but there is no such thing as that.” There is no official “sustainably certified” label, at least not in the sense of a label such as USDA Organic. Any company may make this claim because an official label as such does not exist.
While it may be hard for Aramark to get the majority of its food from local farmers, this may change in time with the opening of GrowFood Carolina. The local food hub opened in October 2011 and serves to help local growers provide more food to the market.
Sara Clow, the General Manager to GrowFood Carolina, said in other parts of the country, Aramark already uses local food hubs. She said she wanted to replicate it here since the model seems to be working. She said, “I think there is a lot of potential for more local food to be involved.”
The Claim of Sustainable Transportation
Another claim made by Aramark involves the minimization of transportation. Once again, on the College’s Dining Services website under sustainability, Aramark made claims such as, “We rely on vehicles to deliver products and services to our many customer locations. We recognize that reducing our fuel use and emissions will have a substantial impact on costs and the environment.” The College is not the only place Aramark has made such claims. Other schools, such as University of Alabama, Arizona State University and Western Carolina University all have the exact same words listed under a sustainability section on their Dining Service’s website. Is Aramark’s claim true? Aramark declined to comment on such a question.
However, Aramark is dependent upon the company Sysco for the delivery of produce and materials. Even if Aramark wanted to make strides with sustainable transportation, it would still have to depend on its support system, which includes Sysco.
Fisher brought this topic to light, but extended it to the campus as a whole. One group or individual is not always completely at fault; they depend on others. He said, “I think it’s fair to say we, as a college campus, can do more to make the campus more and our support systems more sustainable. And Aramark and others need to be a part of that process.”
Brewton also mentioned that everyone can be found at fault for being unsustainable. When it comes to the amount of waste being produced, students become responsible by choosing whether or not to take “more than they need.”
Aramark is also dependent on the College. Brewton said, “The College controls recycling and waste management. Aramark has no control of it. They simply use what we provide them.” Brewton did note, however, that the College does recycle cans and cardboard.
Bottom Line: Aramark is a company, not a person
With the push for “green” initiatives on campus, specifically dealing with the creation of the Office of Sustainability and the rise of the student group Green CofC this year, Aramark’s claims have come under question.
While Myers found Aramark’s initiatives questionable, he also said the College is at fault due to its ignorance on the subject matter. He said,
“The College Administration is not aware I think. I’m sure when they first contracted with [Aramark], they looked at its green initiatives but didn’t thoroughly research them. Looking like they were green was probably enough for them. I don’t have much faith in the College to put much effort in something like this.”
According to Brewton, Aramark signed a 10 year contract with the College in 2005. Their contract will not be up for a re-bid until 2015. Brewton reaffirmed what Myers said in that the College did not look in-depth regarding sustainability when it signed the contract. She said, “I don’t recall anything in the initial specs that was involved with sustainability.”
While Myers said the College has not put much effort in the past with “green” initiatives, he said the creation of the Office of Sustainability this year, backed with the help of Director Fisher, will provide a general push in the right direction.
Fisher also said he had optimism with the push for more sustainable options. He said, “The way I feel about the whole issue is that Dining Services didn’t have the chance to flesh out the options with me and the Office. But now we have the Office to address these concerns.”
While Myers acknowledged the recent push made by the College for “green” initiatives, he said the bottom line comes down to the fact that Aramark is a company and not a person. He said its values stem from a strategy dealing with profit-making. He said, “It’s not that Aramark is a bad person. But it’s a company. They are trying to make a profit. Sometimes it comes down to the difference in getting cheaper tomatoes from a big farm in California as opposed to an organic farm in South Carolina.”
Brewton acknowledged the cost factor when it comes to being sustainable. For example, the compostable materials in City Bistro are more expensive than other materials. She said, “You have to make an effort and sometimes it costs you.”
However, Fisher said that sometimes being sustainable and being fiscally responsible matchup. Thinking about both options sometimes lineup and are not mutually exclusive ideas. Fisher said, “They may seem conflicting in the short-run, but in time, [being sustainable] can save us money. From a campus perspective, we need to think of options for both.”
This article appeared in the Dec. 8, 2011 issue of G magazine.