How Brandeis reduced our food carbon footprint over 20% in its first sustainable dining program
This case study reviews how Brandeis harnessed the RFP and contracting process for a new dining vendor in 2019-2021 to make huge and first-ever strides in sustainability in our dining program.
In 2019, Brandeis University began the process of selecting a new dining services partner, Sodexo. This presented a unique opportunity to add to the direction of Brandeis’ sustainability program, and for the first time ever to include sustainability goals and metrics in Brandeis Dining Services. This case study details how we developed and defined our sustainable dining program, and as a result reduced our food carbon footprint, reduced food waste, increased our plant-based protein sources, and increased our purchases of both New England-sourced foods and foods with sustainable attributes.
The goals of our project were to incorporate sustainability goals and metrics in our Brandeis Dining Services program for the first time in our history. Through extensive research and interviews with peers and experts in the food industry, Brandeis proposed a set of eight metrics. Four metrics focus on the food itself, and the remaining four are focused on waste reduction.
The food goals include:
- Climate Impact: Reduction in greenhouse gas impacts food purchases, measured by Cool Food Calculator: 2% annual reduction from 2019
- New England-Sourced Food Purchases, defined as foods produced in New England: 2% annual increase from 2019
- Foods with sustainable attributes: 2% annual increase from 2019
- Menu Innovation, Marketing and Education: Increase in annual consumption of plant-based foods: Increase in percentage of plant-based protein purchases from 2019
- Waste Reduction: Changes in bulk waste disposal, quarterly in total weight and/or on a per-meal-served basis (on hold due to covid-19): Reduction from baseline
- Waste Diversion: Changes in recycled and composted waste rates from dining hall (using hauler-reported data): 30% compost, 20% recycled
- Disposables: Reduction in single-use items (on hold due to covid-19): Change from 2019
*Sustainable food purchases are defined as Certified Humane, Cage Free, Certified Fair Trade, Certified Organic, MSC Certified, non-GMO, Seafood Watch Best Choice or Good Alternative, fish sourced from Red's Best, and foods that are part of the Future 50 Foods program.
Brandeis is in a very unique and advantageous position for advocating for New-England sourced foods, thanks to the research of our own professor Brian Donahue in our Environmental Studies program. In 2015, he led a study, A New England Food Vision, focused on how New England could increase our food production to grow and be more reliant on regional agriculture. The authors estimated that, in terms of acreage, New England produces about 12% of the food it consumes. Today, New England produces about half of the dairy products consumed in the region, less than half of the vegetables (mostly sweet corn and potatoes), and only a fraction of most other foods. The study calls for New England to source 50% of its food by 2060 from the region, and lays out how that can be done. Importantly, we recognize with this metric that local food is not intrinsically sustainable, nor is it a panacea. But it can be an opportunity to gain greater control of our food system. As of this writing, Food Solutions New England has announced they are updating the vision, which inform our metrics in the future, and we hope to get involved in the update process.
To set the guideposts for how to reduce our carbon footprint by 2% in our first year, we used the Cool Food calculator. We found that a 4% reduction in beef, replaced with either plant-based protein or poultry, would yield a 2% reduction.
- Researching best practices in dining and in dining contracts that could elevate our dining program to new heights.
- Preparing the RFP. The Manager of Sustainability Programs worked with the VP of Campus Operations, the Director of Campus Services, our dining consultant, and other stakeholders including a student union representative, the Department of Community Living, Athletics, Student Affairs, and more.
- Meeting with vendors preparing proposals. During these meetings, Brandeis was able to communicate their vision of sustainability for our dining services so that vendors could prepare proposals that met our needs.
- Selecting a vendor. The Sustainability Manager was involved in evaluating the several proposals we received and ranking them according to their ability to help Brandeis achieve its vision.
- Choosing and writing the metrics for the vendor to be measured against. In parallel with the vendor selection process, Brandeis refined and defined the list of measurable performance metrics for sustainability, resulting in 8 quantitative metrics.
- Collecting data from our vendor and building a model internally to analyze new data as it comes in.
- Ongoing management and measurement. We have meetings with stakeholders in dining services multiple times per month, and open communication about performance. We collect monthly purchasing data from 3 separate sources to combine into a cohesive look into our progress.
This process was severely impacted by the covid-19 pandemic. All of the campus-wide presentations scheduled with proposing vendors were held during the first week of March 2020. By the second week of March, we were sending students home and shutting down campus due to the pandemic. This caused a major readjustment. We determined that the best course of action was to indeed sign a new contract, but with Sodexo, our existing vendor, and for a 2-year contract term only. With that new contract, we developed incentives and a performance plan around several key areas: health & safety, cleanliness, customer satisfaction, catering, and sustainability. Fortunately, the pandemic did not impact the metrics we developed; we simply had to put 2 of the metrics (focused on waste) on hold.
Stakeholders and collaborators include:
- Mary Fischer, Manager, Sustainability Programs
- Lois Stanley, Vice President, Campus Operations
- Jeffrey Hershberger, Director, University Services
- Claire Pontbriand, Data Analysis Specialist for Science, Library Research and Instruction Services
- Michael Reilly, Resident District Manager
- Rose Forrest, Director of Culinary
- Nolan Reese, Registered Dietitian
- Alex Zolotov, Marketing Specialist
- Stan Park, Operations Director
External consultants: TMC Group
Others: Invaluable staff and resources from Farm to Institution New England and their Network Advisory Council
Summer 2019 Decision to put dining services out to bid
Extensive research begins by office of sustainability on sustainability in dining contracts, including gaining insight from:
- Food Solutions New England
- Farm to Institution New England
- Peers and leaders of food service in New England institutions
- AASHE resource research
- Brandeis dining consultant
- Student groups
Office of sustainability develops sustainability language for RFP
October 2019 Brandeis dining open forums are held to gather Brandeis community feedback RFP released Initial meetings held with interested dining vendors
January 2020 Proposals due from dining vendors Extensive review of responses to sustainability measures
March 2020 Vendors present to Brandeis community Campus shuts down due to covid-19
Late spring 2020 Decision made to issue 2 year extension to current vendor, with new contract
Summer 2020 Office of sustainability writes language for dining contract with exact metrics and scoring for performance program
Fall 2020 New contract period begins. Baseline purchasing metrics are calculated using 2019 purchasing records. Fall metric performance calculated as data becomes available Data modeling performed to show that a 4% reduction in beef, replaced with either plant-based protein or poultry, would yield a 2% annual reduction
Spring 2021 New menu changes put in place around beef reduction Calculations of progress reveal results of menu changes and additional initiatives in Spring vs Fall
There was no additional cost budgeted for these sustainability initiatives. We estimate that we saved money in our food budget given the reduction in beef expenditures.
Results by metric Climate Impact: Reduction in greenhouse gas impacts food purchases, measured by the Cool Food Calculator
- Goal: 2% reduction from fall semester
- Actual: 21% reduction
Brandeis Dining Services took the following steps to reduce our carbon footprint:
Reduced beef in menus:
- Beef appeared 32x/week in fall 2020. In Spring 2021, it appeared 19x/week.
- Our default burger is now a mushroom-blended burger, with 25% less beef, made in-house with New England-sourced mushrooms.
- All of this resulted in a 50% reduction in ground beef.
Held more Meatless Mondays:
- Meatless Mondays are held twice per month this semester instead of twice per year
- 14 dining events were planned this spring around plant-based diets, health & nutrition (30% of all events in Spring 2021)
Three new plant-based menu concepts were introduced in our dining halls this year: Sunshine Bowl, a grain bowl station Swirl, a smoothie station * Rustic Roots, a vegan station
New England-Sourced Food Purchases, defined as foods produced in New England
- Goal: 2% increase from 2019 baseline
- Actual: 1.6% increase
Steps to increase amount of New England-sourced produce: Our culinary director is now planning menus based on the growing calendar
Sustainable Food Purchases defined as Certified Humane, Cage Free, Certified Fair Trade, Certified Organic, MSC Certified, non-GMO, Seafood Watch Best Choice or Good Alternative, fish sourced from Red's Best, and foods that are part of the Future 50 Foods program.
- Goal: 2% increase from 2019
- Actual: 2.8% increase
Steps to increase purchases of sustainable food: Future 50 Foods have been incorporated into menus more, such as amaranth and lotus root.
Menu Innovation, Marketing and Education: Increase in annual consumption of plant-based foods
- Goal: Any increase over 2019 (Baseline: 10.7% of our protein was plant-based)
- Actual: 23.4% plant-based, more than double our baseline
Steps to increase the ratio of plant to animal based protein are included in the carbon reduction section above.
Waste Reduction: Reduction in bulk waste disposal, quarterly in total weight and/or on a per-meal-served basis (on hold due to covid-19)
- Goal: Reduction from baseline
- Actual: While this waste disposal metric is on hold due to covid-19, gains were made using Leanpath (see below)
Waste Diversion: Changes in recycled and composted waste rates from dining hall (using hauler-reported data)
- Compost goal: 30% of total dining waste
- Compost actual: 41.1%
- Recycling goal: 20%
- Recycling actual: 17.7% (up from 6.8% in baseline year)
Disposables: Reduction in single-use item purchases (on hold due to covid-19)
- Goal: Reduction from baseline
- Actual: While this waste disposal metric is on hold due to covid-19, gains were made by switching how we provide single-use disposable utensils (see below)
Steps to address waste:
- Brandeis Dining Services introduced Leanpath in January 2021 to reduce food waste. Since its introduction, our total weight of wasted food per week declined. We show an overall decrease in wasted beef, lamb & chicken from March to May. Our dollar value for overproduction waste also declined, showing we made adjustments based on reduced customer counts.
- Single-utensil dispensers holding compostable utensils were put in place in February 2021, to replace the 3-utensil wrapped packet that was given out to students every time they swiped in to the dining area.
- Utensil & bag opt-out options were added to the Bite app so students could opt-out of receiving those items when they ordered from our retail locations
- We eliminated plastic bags entirely from our take-out areas and C-store
- We are using mostly compostable containers
- We learned that reducing the footprint of our food purchases is not only possible but easy. We were guided by a 4% reduction in beef to meet our 2% carbon reduction goal, but our Director of Culinary Rose Forrest went far beyond that with a multi-pronged approach to beef reduction specifically. Moreover, we heard zero negative feedback from our students about a lack or reduction of beef.
- We learned that the cost to reduce carbon through our menu choices is far less than the cost to reduce carbon via capital investment, compared to our recent capital projects. For example, an LED lighting retrofit in our Shapiro Campus Center resulted in a nearly 50 tonne carbon reduction over 1 year at a cost of over $200,000 dollars. The cost to reduce our food footprint in our pilot spring semester, also equating to nearly 50 tonnes of carbon, was $0. We are currently in the midst of the financial comparison between our lower spend on beef vs. our increased spend in other areas.
- One silver lining to the all-takeout dining model was that it justified expanding compost collection to all residence halls. Before, residence halls did not have access to compost bins in their trash/recycling stations. Now, students take their trash out to disposal areas with containers for trash, recycling and compost, and we have seen a huge increase in knowledge, as demonstrated by the reduction in contamination of our compost bins as reported by our hauler.
- We learned the value of deepening our relationship with our food suppliers. Our produce supplier was originally not able to provide information regarding our products’ location. However, upon further discussion, we determined a way for them to identify those items and provide us monthly reports based on their internal naming conventions and knowledge of suppliers based on seasonal changes.
- Most importantly, we are taking what we have learned to revise our metrics in the next academic year. For example, our waste diversion goal may turn into an overall diversion goal rather than be split into compost vs. recycling; our undefined goals in plant-based protein and waste reduction will have more data to actually define goals in the future; and we hope to incorporate the resources provided by the Cool Food Pledge to add to or update plant-based menu items to improve both customer satisfaction and perceived value of our food.