Feeding the Urban Campus

By Adam Brock


Across the country, colleges are beginning to rethink the way they get their food. Many campuses (particularly ones in rural areas) have begun supplying organic produce, partnering with with local farms and even setting up on-campus gardens and farms, transforming their students’ relationship with food in the process.

Not so with NYU. A hyper-urban location and massive demand – 11 separate dining halls serving a total of 60 tons of food per week – makes NYU’s dining system about as distant from the family farm as it gets. To satisfy the appetites of its thousands of students with meal plans, the university contracts its dining services out to Aramark, a national food service provider which isn’t exactly known for being at the cutting edge of sustainable cuisine.

Yet the ship is finally starting to turn: last week, the newly renovated Hayden dining hall opened, with an unprecedented focus on local, healthy options. While I haven’t been on a meal plan in years, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to have lunch at there last Wednesday to see how it measured up.

Hayden’s most impressive new feature is the central produce bar, much of which comes from local food service provider Sid Wainer. Each meal, the bar features a set of vegan dishes, at least two organic vegetables, and an expansive array of locally grown produce. In addition, the dining hall now uses to-go boxes made from bagasse, a sugarcane byproduct, and PLA cups and utensils for its take-out service.

Compared to the poorly-lit, nutritionally-deprived dining hall it replaced, the new Hayden is a welcome improvement, indeed. But as a model for a new way of bringing food to campus, I found much to be desired. Most glaring was the fact that the more sustainable fare seemed to be a mere afterthought: besides the new salad bar, it’s the same soda, burgers and waffles as before. As for the taste of the new food, well, let’s just say I could tell that most of it wasn’t organic. And without a composting infrastructure to break it down, the biodegradeable tableware is little more than a gesture.

After my meal, I spoke with Randy Bain, Aramark’s regional culinary director for campuses in the Northeast. Surprisingly, he openly acknowledged the that Hayden was just a first step, and a small one at that. It’s a promising sign, because there’s a lot left to be done. Designing a sustainable food system for an institution the size of NYU means developing reliable, large-scale distribution systems for local and organic food, as well as creative awareness campaigns to let students know why the pizza stall was replaced with a juice bar.

Can we ever make the food at NYU completely local, seasonal, and organic? Maybe not in the next few years. But in the long run I don’t really think we have a choice. As cheap energy becomes a distant memory, shipping in beef and bananas from across the country just won’t make economic sense. And NYU might be on the large side for a college, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the city it’s in. So if we can’t even feed NYU students locally, how will we feed possibly feed the rest of New York? Looks like Randy Bain’s gonna have a full plate.


4 thoughts on “Feeding the Urban Campus

  1. EarthFreak says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the composting infrastructure notion. It’s one thing to not be consuming petroleum-based* disposables. But it’s very important for the materials loop to be closed via composting.

    I wonder what the true necessity of disposables is at NYU. Does everyone need “take out” containers? What I’m really getting at is that reusable plates, cups, and cutlery consume far less energy and generate significantly less waste, even when compared with the most “green” of disposables.

    *the petroleum input to corn output ratio in PLA plastics has not been assessed


    I’ve visited the University of Florida’s first “sustainable” dining facility, The Fresh Food Company. A year and much success later, a second dining hall has opened.

    Note that it is extremely difficult to source some local items such as those made from wheat (as it is not grown in the entire state). Still, their sustainable food service website has some good pointers for any budding “eco-teria.”


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