Year to year, from both customers and suppliers, there never seems to be a shortage of criticism about Downer Commons. Topics range from the generation of waste, variety of foods, food allergy labeling, and nutritional quality, to the working conditions of employees and supervisors. What do you want? What don’t you want? When there’s nothing else to talk about at Downer, there’s always Downer… unless you are really concerned.For many students, personal thoughts about one of the most important topics for all life—what to eat—don’t seem to stray far from the immediate cafeteria setting and beyond the conventional menu. However, for Malika Chatterji, the topic of consumption and waste at Downer has ascended into the realm of ethics, economics, and politics.
Chatterji, a graduate of the Biosphere II program who is pursuing a major in government and a minor in environmental studies, has approached the topic of Downer ecology from a global and practical perspective. Last year Chatterji organized a conference with Donna Krippner, Assistant Food Services Director, and Tom Wojociechowski, a student administrator from the environmentally outstanding Northland College, to discuss practical ways to make the facility more eco-friendly and sustainable.
Northland College has made headlines by its unique food service, which provides meals made from locally grown crops. Wojociechowski stressed the economic and environmental benefits of purchasing from local and organic farmers. According to Chatterji, from the supply side, business with local farmers would be healthier and more environmentally sound than purchasing products from mega-giant food vendors, while creating a campus-wide compost system could efficiently reduce unnecessary waist from entering landfills and successfully reintegrate it into healthy ecosystems.
After attending the fourth annual “Greening of the Campus” Conference at Ball State University in Indiana, Chatterji would like to see Lawrence facilities certified under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, stressing that these practical and cost-effective changes would further enhance Lawrence’s reputation as an environmental leader. Chatterji emphasizes the need to “de-radicalize” environmental issues related to Downer and look at them from a practical, problem-solving perspective.
Krippner responds to these suggestions with enthusiasm, stating her support for a compost facility: “I wish somewhere down the road the campus would recognize the benefit of having a compost area on campus where garbage can be recycled… It takes many man hours and a lot of campuses do it with a grant from the city, state, or federal government. It’s astronomical how much food is thrown away that people take and just don’t eat.”
Krippner also cites Food Services’s attempts at buying locally: “We’re making efforts, as small as they might seem, with Wisconsin produced potatoes and apples and organic produce as much as we can, but it’s a slow process, and I think it’s a process requiring a commitment by the community— the whole Lawrence community, not just Food Services.”
Krippner describes the rationale behind Downer’s current system in terms of cost, availability, and variety of foods. “Even if you specifically wanted produce from the United States primarily, it’s going to limit your choices. We’re in a society where people aren’t used to that anymore.” Krippner recalls complaints made by students who weren’t satisfied with the limited banana, apple, and orange fruit selection.
Krippner also pointed out the existence of mechanisms promoting Northland College’s environmental plan: “One of their retired professors decided to go into organic farming. So much of the produce that can’t be grown in Wisconsin comes from his farm and the food service department at this college buys directly from him… They’re managed by a contract company. With the contract company behind them, they have made a conscious decision to purchase more local and organic produce and products, and so they raised their meal plan cost to accommodate that.” Krippner acknowledged that the increase in cost was not substantial. Food Services currently purchases from two main vendors: Reinhart Foods and Glandt-Dalhke, Inc.
Krippner states that small changes have improved the eating experience at Downer, such as the new paint job and remodeling; display cooking replacing the former U.S.A. Grill; the enlargement of cups; and increased quality in desserts and variety in foods. Krippner also acknowledges complaints about students’ need to know about allergens in foods and encourages them to inquire about ingredients in foods with cooks. Krippner, a registered dietician, is also heading a wellness committee which will be addressing ways in which the freshmen can avoid the “freshman fifteen” next term.