Yale Dining sustainability efforts shine

November 25, 2015

All Meat is not Created Equal

It’s hard enough to prepare enough food for an entire undergraduate population. Yale Dining goes above and beyond, however – they strive to make their meals both delicious and sustainable.

Within the context of dining, the most obvious area for sustainability impacts is meat consumption. In some ways, industrial processes of raising meat for consumption is inherently inefficient when compared to raising plant crops; you have to produce food, generally in the form of grain, to feed the animal, and some of the energy invested in the original crop is lost in the process. Globally, meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Other factors, notably added hormones and antibiotics, can make meat production even more problematic. Antibiotic use can generate drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and hormones given to cattle can disrupt local ecologies.

Yale Dining recognizes all of these problems, and has taken measures to maximize its sustainability. It’s not feasible for Yale Dining to stop serving meat and dairy, but Yale can and does support businesses who raise livestock in the most sustainable, mindful way possible.

Going Abroad

In August, Yale Dining switched to sourcing all of its beef and lamb from Australia. Australia is mostly free of the worst livestock diseases, making antibiotic-free meat production far more viable there. The meats Yale sources from Australia are also grass-fed, grass-finished, and pasture raised. On top of all this, the meats are free of added hormones. All these factors contribute to Australia being one of the top quality beef producers worldwide.

By USDA standards, ‘grass-fed’ beef can be confined for as many as six months out of the year and still be labeled as grass-fed as long as the cows are fed grass and forage. Yale Dining goes far beyond these standards, sourcing meats from animals who have been pastured for their entire lives. By going international, Yale is able to access a far higher quality of meat.

While importing meat may seem like a massive energy cost, these animals are all pastured, meaning that their food does not need as much of an energy investment to produce. Even more energy is saved by eliminating the need to produce synthetic hormones and antibiotics. These two factors balance out the carbon footprint, making the switch carbon-neutral. Plus, the Australian livestock industry is one of the few Australian industries who have reduced their emissions since the Kyoto Protocol, meaning Australian meat is produced with one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat producing country[1].

Local Opportunities

The rest of Yale Dining’s meat sourcing is similarly mindful. Yale Dining’s pork is sourced from Niman Ranch, a community network of over 700 independent family farmers throughout the United States. Their pigs are raised with strict protocols, which include vegetarian diets, no added hormones or antibiotics, and humane housing requirements. All of Yale dining’s chicken is cage-free and antibiotic-free, and their eggs are similarly produced by cage-free and antibiotic-free hens (they’re also hormone-free, as is all chicken produced in the US). The majority of Yale’s chicken is Perdue Harvestland brand, though Yale also sources some halal chicken from Patuxent Farms; both are raised with similar high standards.

Much of Yale Dining’s seafood is sourced from Alaska, the only state that has a constitutional mandate stipulating that all fish “be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustainable yield principle”. Yale uses a variety of suppliers, all of whom meet Monterey Bay sustainability standards, both wild and farmed, and strive to minimize negative environmental impact.

More of This, Less of That

While it’s important to source meat sustainably, Yale Dining recognizes that the gold standard is reducing meat consumption. As a part of this effort, Yale revamped its salad bar program after an intensive, six-month study in 2009. Previously, the bar was ‘ingredients-based’, offering a wide selection of ingredients without any end product in mind. The dining halls shifted towards offering a trio of prepared salads and one ‘deconstructed salad’, where ingredients for a fourth salad are separated into containers for students to add in whatever proportions they prefer. Through this change, Yale has made salads planned by professional chefs more accessible to students, while still giving students agency over their food choices. These efforts make plant-based food appealing, encouraging people to gravitate towards sustainable dining.

Yale Dining has also launched a ‘More This, Less That’ poster campaign to promote plant-based foods in the dining halls. These practices have had a measurable effect – Yale Dining’s meat purchasing has been consistently falling from year to year, and is purchasing more and more produce.

Other measures include reducing the portion sizes of meat-based dishes – those who want more meat can take two pieces, but those who don’t want as much, won’t consume as much. Or, in some catering situations, Yale Dining sets up a vegetable carving station with roasted daikon radishes or carrots, and offers a side of meat after serving the vegetables, as opposed to a traditional meat carving station. Methods like this change the context of how people interact with consuming meat, and help to reduce meat consumption without depriving anyone of anything.

Making Sustainability Viable

Yale Dining is a sufficiently large purchaser of food that it can cause real change in the regional food economy. Yale is careful with its purchasing – Yale doesn’t want to purchase so much local food that it strains supply chains for smaller businesses – but it can help start wonderful movements and businesses.

Take Whole G, a small artisan New Haven based bread producer. The owner, Andrea Corazzini, started his business baking bread out of his home kitchen and selling it. Yale Dining heard about the product, loved it, and committed to buying it from him. Now, Whole G has expanded its baking capacity to provide product to a multitude of area businesses and has opened five G Café locations.  Whole G now employs over 50 community members and is a thriving local business. By being a reliable purchaser, Yale Dining was able to help the business launch.

Similarly, Yale can collaborate with larger businesses to support positive changes in their practices. Yale sources its hot dogs from the producer Hummel Bros. As a response to health concerns about nitrate, a common chemical added to cured meats, Yale encouraged them to begin producing a nitrate-free hot dog. Since Yale can purchase such a large volume of hot dogs, it was economically viable to develop the product, and Hummel Bros. is currently considering bringing the product to retail locations for broader consumer use. Similarly, next time you see Bush beans at a supermarket, you’ll usually see both ‘regular’ and a ‘low sodium’ version. Bush began to produce a ‘low sodium’ version because Yale Dining requested the product.

Such practices are referred to as ‘anchoring’ – by promising to buy a large volume of product, Yale can enable businesses to adopt sustainable practices which would otherwise have uncertain payoffs. With the recent WHO report on the dangers of processed meats, Yale is hoping to create a market for safer meats. Bacon doesn’t need to be cured – the curing process could be done with celery juice, and only the iconic pink color of the meat would be lost. But at the time of writing, there are no major suppliers of uncured bacon. With increased awareness of health risks and committed, major buyers like Yale Dining may begin to drive change towards healthier options.

Learn more about Yale Dining’s sustainable practices.

[1] Product Guide for Australian Beef. (2012). Retrieved October 9, 2015.