Higher Sustainability in Higher Ed

By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Abi Justice

Ah, the life of a college student: summers off, late classes and loads of laundry toted home to dear old Mom on the weekends. Studying, tests and term papers aside, there’s a lot to love about higher learning—except, perhaps, the college cafeteria. That is, of course, unless you’re dining at St. Edward’s University, where the menu changes regularly and the ingredients are all from sustainable and predominantly local sources.


More than two years ago, the university hired Bon Appétit Management Company to direct all of its student, faculty and event food needs. But unlike other food-service companies, Bon Appétit puts the café back in cafeteria by eschewing the slide-a-tray-down-cold-metal-bars method for a more modern, welcoming restaurant setting with a waitstaff, ever-changing menus and fresh, local, made-to-order food.

St. Edward’s is not the first to recognize the difference this California-based company has made in its more than 20 years in the market. As a result of its commitment to sustainable food, Bon Appétit’s client list has steadily grown to include private universities and corporate headquarters such as eBay, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems, as well as specialty venues like Café Modern at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

This mission began in 1987 when the company noted the impact conventional food distribution methods were having on the environment. In 1999, Bon Appétit began to shift its focus to practicing a more eco-friendly, locally focused business model. Currently, the administrators for each café in the network are responsible for growing relationships with farmers and purveyors in their area.

“It’s what really attracted me to work with this company,” says Hays Atkins, Central Texas district manager for Bon Appétit. “The organization comes from the top, but the relationships are on the local level. Our chefs write the menus and do their own purchasing. We’re not dictating anything to them.”

When constructing the menu for St. Edward’s, for example, Bon Appétit’s Chef Brian Krellenstein relies on fresh produce from Austin’s Sustainable Food Center, lettuces and herbs from Bella Verdi Farms in Dripping Springs, fresh vegetables from Boggy Creek Farm in Austin and rice from Lowell Farms in El Campo.

This local commitment attracted John Lash of Farm to Table, a distributor of locally grown and produced foods. Though his primary accounts are restaurants in the Central Texas area, Lash—a St. Edward’s alum—was particularly interested in working with Atkins and Krellenstein.

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“I have to applaud them for the commitment they’ve made to both the students and the community in general,” says Lash, whose deliveries to St. Edward’s include a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables from farms within a 150-mile radius of Austin. “I’m excited to work with a large corporation that promotes this with all of their clients.”

In addition to keeping a local focus, Bon Appétit also promotes the use of sustainable seafood and cage-free eggs in its cafés, and has taken a stand against the overuse of antibiotics in commercially sold meats. In 2007, the company addressed the connection between food and climate change by aggressively reducing the use of beef, cheese, food waste, air-freighted products, tropical fruits and processed foods—all of which significantly contribute to carbon emissions.

As a result, the menus at Bon Appétit’s more than 400 cafés across the country have reduced beef purchasing by more than 25 percent and cheese by 10 percent—a key initiative to reduce the demand for products derived from ruminant animals that emit methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2. And, with smarter purchasing and kitchen staff education, food waste among the cafés was reduced by 20 percent in just a 10-week period and notable reductions continue to be seen.

“In order for us to have the best, most flavorful food to serve,” says Maisie Greenawalt, vice president of Bon Appétit, “we have to be concerned about the impact of our sourcing on our communities, our environment and the well-being of our guests.”

Staying true to this philosophy of sustainability can be an enlightening challenge. Greenawalt recalls a few years ago when Hurricane Rita hit the Houston area. Sadly, the hurricane decimated local farms, so the Houston-based chefs had to supplement with sustainable sources outside their geographic area. “It forced them to look 150 miles in the other direction and develop new relationships,” says Greenawalt. This lesson in biodiversity was unexpected and tragic, but one that highlighted the fragility of, and broadened the appreciation for, local foodsheds.

What Greenawalt finds most compelling about Bon Appetit’s drive to support local communities, though, is the growth that farming has seen as a result. “There’s story after story of farms across the country that have been able to expand, or at least have stability, based on the relationship they have with their Bon Appétit chef,” notes Greenawalt. “That’s extremely rewarding.”


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