February 25, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecelia Timberg | Photo by Rikki Held

When students walk into Colorado College’s Rastall Dining Hall, they are met with images of farmers smiling and the Rocky Mountains framing cornfields. The images are captioned with phrases celebrating sustainability and supporting local farms. However, a recent analysis indicates that CC’s food sourcing might not be as eco-friendly as it may appear.

A team of paid interns and volunteers from the Office of Sustainability, and a paid student-staff intern hired under Bon Appétit — the California-based food-service company responsible for dining services at CC — reviewed purchasing receipts. They found that only 33% of the money spent on food at the dining hall was going to sustainably sourced food.

“What we were finding is that most of our food comes from big distributors like Tyson Chicken,” said Hannah Shew ’24, a volunteer for the Office of Sustainability. “The pastries in Colorado Coffee labeled ‘baked fresh’ we found were made from Pillsbury Dough.”

She added that the research showed the ideals portrayed by Bon Appétit do not live up to its slogan: “Food Service for a Sustainable Future.”

Photo by Rikki Held

According to Shew, the patterns that emerged from their research indicated that most of the food on campus comes from large businesses that place little value on sustainability.

Only 33% of the food budget was spent on sustainably sourced food, as reflected in the receipts they cataloged.

Another element of food sustainability they researched was food waste. They compared receipts and interviewed Bon Appétit employees to investigate.

“Anything at the end of the night has to be thrown away. If you’re there when the dining hall closes at eight and there’s still food out, all that gets wasted,” said Shew.

The research was done for the Sustainability Tracking and Ranking System (STARS), a self-reporting framework for colleges to measure their sustainability performance created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. CC has long marketed their food supply system as sustainable and focused on local farms, so the students on the STARS team were struck by their findings.

Peter Todaro, a Bon Appétit communications and content specialist, responded in an email. “All of our chefs are tasked with sourcing a minimum of 20% of their ingredients from enrolled Farm to Fork vendors – owner-operated small farmers, ranchers, and artisans within 150 miles of their kitchens.”

He cited a difference in definition of a “locally-sourced” radius as a reason for the difference in percentages of locally sourced food found by the STARS team and the goals set by Bon Appétit. The STARS team defined “local sources” as a 100-mile radius while Bon Appétit defined it as 150 miles.

Todaro listed multiple company-wide principles that should be considered in the evaluation of Bon Appétit’s sustainability ideals. These principles include sourcing turkey and chicken from farms that do not use antibiotics as a feed additive, sourcing milk and yogurt from cows not treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, and other principles that prioritize animal welfare. Bon Appétit also has a goal of trimming transportation and reducing deforestation.

The STARS team’s job was to look at every Bon Appétit receipt from a two-month period in 2019 and 2020 to enter the data onto a spreadsheet. This meant documenting the distributor and cost of every apple and bag of rice that was bought for college students.

“Many of the Farm to Fork vendors we regularly source from have not been able to make deliveries due to staffing shortages and other barriers resulting from impacts of the pandemic,” Todaro said. “These disruptions have hampered our ability to fully adhere to our stated local sourcing goals.”

The receipts cataloged by the STARS team were from the year 2020, when the prevalence of COVID-19 on campus meant that most of the dining options at CC were carry-out.

Robert Moore, the CC Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration/Treasury pointed to “COVID-related challenges” that required food to be served in a grab-and-go format as a possible cause of the lower-than-expected sustainability metrics found by the STARS team. Shew also cited COVID-19 as an important variable in their analysis.

STARS looks at emissions, housing, food systems, and other elements surrounding CC’s sustainability to give the college a ranking of Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze. Currently, CC is placed at level Gold.

The goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral campus in terms of emissions was met due to student advocacy; the students were passionate about switching from coal to solar energy. CC’s student population and classes place a significant value on sustainability, but the activities of Bon Appétit have not previously drawn serious scrutiny from the student body. 

“We were never allowed to be in the office without a Bon Appétit worker, and when they knew we were doing sustainability work, there was some hesitation. They gave us the data, though, because we have the right to it,” said Shew.

The students were forbidden by Bon Appétit to take photos of the receipts or remove them from the office where they were working. They had to set up appointments every time they wanted to work to come into the office, and Bon Appétit was inconsistent about their responsiveness and scheduling.

Todaro explained that these measures were put in place because many of Bon Appétit’s contracts with vendors limit their ability to share pricing information.

With their research completed, the STARS team plans to work with the Office of Sustainability Food and Beverage Team to address their food sourcing concerns. They are putting together a presentation to bring to the CC Bon Appétit leadership.

The message of their presentation is going to be clear: If Bon Appétit advertises a sustainable and local food sourcing system, they must reflect those ideals in their budgeting decisions.

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