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.


Small Projects, Big Lessons

 by Nelson Harvey

When I tell people that I’m working with a grant from NYU to convert one of their vehicles to run on biofuel, I often get the same reaction. “One!?” they chuckle, the way you would at a child who just showed you his fingerpainting. “How cute!” they seem to be saying. However small the project, though, I’ve recently realized that it presents several lessons that could come in handy in the larger efforts to address climate change that are cropping up in all corners of society.

The first parallell between our work at NYU and the broader battle is that, like society as a whole, we don’t really know what we’re doing. I’ve spent days in front of the computer weighing the merits of various approaches to the project, but there are certain things that we just won’t know until we put some fuel in the tank. We could take the safe route and use B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel), but that would give us a 20 percent reduction in emissions at the most, and there are pressing questions about the impact of biodiesel emissions on human health. We could be daring and use straight vegetable oil or B99, but since we’d be using a new NYU vehicle, breakdowns could have some dodgy PR and budgetary consequences.

With a few exceptions, those of us working on this project have never done this before. Our uncertainty about the proper path is the same uncertainty that we all face as we try to tailor our response to climate change. Humans have never sequestered carbon on a large scale, or rolled out climate “stabalization wedges” significant enough to avoid doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 2050. All the research in the world can get us part way, but there’s no substitute for simply getting our hands in the dirt.

Like all environmental efforts, our little project has to please multiple parties if it will ever be successful. Administrators need assurance that the vehicle will be reliable, and that the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve poured into a new van won’t wind up in a smoking heap. At the same time, those of us behind the effort have to meet our own standards. If the project is too mild to have much of an environmental impact, after all, then why even bother?

Globally, attempts at greening are no different. It may seem abstract to talk about gigawatt scale solar or wind farms, new incentives for biodiesel, or restrictions on carbon, but all of these policy changes have real consequences once enacted. Jobs may be lost (or gained), industries may rise and fall, and companies may be forced to change. You can bet that consensus won’t come easily, nor should it.

As I’ve explored the specifics of this project and worked to please the different groups involved, I’ve noticed just how easy it is to lose perspective. Concerns about the viscosity of biodiesel or the amperage that a battery can handle often eclipse the reality of what we’re actually doing: converting a single vehicle! If we succeed, it certainly won’t change the world; in fact, it will hardly be a blip on NYU’s own radar. Similarly, no single initiative will take care of climate change for us, and its not clear that the sum of our efforts is even up to the task. As we try, though, I find that nothing eases the way more than a bit of much needed perspective.

Bright Green Baby Steps

By Adam Brock

The big news coming from NYU’s Sustainability Taskforce this past month was the announcement of the campus greening projects that will receive funding next year. In January, the taskforce asked students, faculty and administration to submit proposals for making NYU more sustainable. Of the nearly 50 that were considered, fifteen were given the go-ahead. Among the winners:

  • A demonstration “healthy landscape” garden, using native plants and water-saving techniques that will enable it to sustain itself with very little maintenance.
  • A pilot project (led by WGY’s own Nelson Harvey) to run an NYU vehicle on waste vegetable oil.
  • The EcoPod, an indoor gardening container constructed from materials from NYU’s waste stream.
  • A comprehensive “guide to green living,” to be distributed to all incoming freshmen as part of their welcome materials.
  • A collaboration with NYC bike workshop Time’s Up! to conduct a survey of bike racks on campus and to refurbish and distribute abandoned bicycles to students.

All in all, the funded projects seem to me a diverse and promising set – there’s certainly no lack of creative approaches to campus greening among the NYU community [full disclosure: one of my own proposals, a program to encourage energy conservation in the residence halls, was also selected]. Given the passion and enthusiasm of their orchestrators, I’m sure that this year’s crop of projects will result in successful, creative and highly visible results.

But for all their panache, the projects being funded are merely window dressing on what, come May 2008, will still be a fundamentally unsustainable campus. One vehicle will be running on biofuel, while 70 others continue to use petroleum. One dining hall will offer organic produce, while ten others will serve unhealthy processed food shipped from thousands of miles away. And most importantly, NYU’s 50,000 students will still be learning from professors who teach as if 20th-century concepts like neoliberal economics, advertising-based marketing, and discrete, disconnected disciplines were still valid. In short, the taskforce is a welcome proxy for a true administrative push for a sustainable NYU – but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. A university this large can’t hope to make any real headway by throwing $250,000 towards the cause; in comparison, it spends 33 times that amount on office equipment every year.

NYU’s struggle to define its approach towards sustainability is one that every institution is facing, or will have to face soon. The extent to which these institutions can incorporate ecological thinking will determine how successfully they meet the challenges of the next century. It’s a whole lot easier, though, to talk about embracing sustainability than it is to actually do it. Making these insitutions sustainable in even the grass green sense will require them to be fundamentally restructured from the inside out, something that will take far more than just bright ideas. For all the recent talk of “corporate green”, the values of the grass and forest green movements – transparency, localization, unconsumption – are still far from mainstream. Bringing them to the fore means shifting the values of hundreds of millions of people, people who like their lives just fine the way they are, thank you very much.

It’s difficult for any organization as large as NYU to change rapidly: the decisionmaking structure is long and diffuse, many stakeholders have a vested interest in the status quo, and important financial decisions are subject to an understandable amount of skepticism. But the world is changing around us. Ideas, values, and most importantly, our natural systems are evolving far faster than most of our institutions can keep up with. In particular, climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era will bring about massive transformation in the next decade, whether we like it or not.

The challenge, then, will be not to instigate change but to guide it: away from isolationism, greenwashing and expensive last-ditch efforts, and towards equity, community and elegant solutions. With these values in mind, I eagerly await the results of NYU’s first green steps – but I’ll hold my applause till sustainability on campus is on its feet and running.

Case Studies in Ecodesign: Mountain Oak School

Mtn Oak Before and after

The final project for my Ecosa program this semester was a comprehensive masterplan for Mountain Oak, a Waldorf-based charter school in Prescott. Currently run out of an old two-story motel and a couple of converted houses, the school is in desperate need of more and better space. Our task was to develop a vision plan for Mountain Oak, remaking the existing site into something safer, more spacious and ecologically stunning.

As in every design, we started the process with exhaustive research. In this case, we had to familiarize ourselves with everything from local building codes to native plants, although we spent most of our time researching the Waldorf educational philosophy. Founded by German renaissance man Rudolf Steiner in the 20s, Waldorf education emphasizes whole body learning, creativity and imagination, and a connection to natural cycles. Over the years, architects from Steiner onwards have developed a style for Waldorf schools that includes faceted angles, thick, solid details, and natural materials; one paper we found even specified the ideal classroom shape for each grade.

Classroom Shapes

Once we understood what Waldorf was all about, the principles of ecodesign seemed to fit perfectly into the mix. Far from being hidden, we chose to make the green features of the vision plan highly visible, letting the landscape itself teach students about our connection with the earth.

Another recurring theme of the project was community-building. Through a series of community charettes, we incorporated the school’s stakeholders into the design process and got valuable feedback at each step of the process. For instance, we were told time and time again that the pickup and dropoff was chaotic, so we rearranged the flow of people to streamline the process and foster interaction among parents and teachers.

With all our information at hand, we were finally able to begin designing. After hundreds of feet of trace paper, dozens of iterations on CAD, and many a heated group discussion, we ended up with a 5-phase plan that satisfied the many requirements of the school community, city code, and environmental sterwardship. Here are some of the key aspects:

An undulating ferrocement wall winds its way from corner to corner of the campus, curving in response to the activities it encloses, and accented with railings and gates insipred by Steiner’s designs.

The Plaza is a central gathering area for students covered by a six-post shade structure. When it rains, water drains into the center of the structure and falls to the floor, where covered gutters lead the water to the surrounding planted area.

The Village Center is a Steineresque passive solar building with community space on the ground floor and new classrooms for 7th and 8th grade above.

The current motel building gets a facelift with Green Screen, a modular wire mesh filled with planted evergreen vines.

We presented our vision plan to the community last Thursday, and it received a much better response than we could have anticipated. It remains to be seen how much of the vision plan will get built: like our other clients, the Gutierrez family, Mountain Oak has no budget to speak of. But even if it never makes it past the paper, our design succeeded in inspiring the Mountain Oak community to imagine what could be – as well giving us some much-needed experience in putting our wild green ideas into practice.

Focusing Into Action

Last weekend, me and my fellow Ecosans headed out to UNLV to attend the organizing conference for Focus the Nation. Timed to occur just before the presidential primaries, FTN will be a day of coordnated awareness-raising and political action on campuses, churches, and community centers across the nation, with the hope that it will help climate change become the main issue of the ’08 race. Last week’s conference was put on by Focus the Nation founder Eban Goodstein, and consisted of a series of workshops and presentations to help local organizers prepare for the event.

Goodstein opened with the obligatory science bit (ppt), which continues to surprise me with new information every time someone gives the talk. I hadn’t known, for example, that the past 10,000 years have been unusually warm and stable in temperature, meaning that the entire history of civilization has been blessed with a balmy spell that’s about to turn into a human-caused heatwave.

Climate Change Graph

After being educated on what’s at stake, we split into a series of breakout sessions to brainstorm strategies for the January event. They yielded some great ideas on how to bring awareness of global warming into the mainstream, from tying the issue to heartland values of freedom and Christian stewardship to leveraging the growing corporate interest in sustainability to change consumer attitudes.

Adding to the gravity of the conference was its location: Las Vegas, the epicenter of the indulgent American lifestyle. A few hours on the strip was enough to convince me that there’s next to nothing that can be done to make this place sustainable – not even the massive, LEED Silver MGM City Center currently under construction. Cities like Vegas and Phoenix would be facing serious water shortages in the next few decades regardless of growth or global warming; add to that a doubled population and projected dustbowl conditions, and you’ve got the recipe for disaster.

The conference ended with a sendoff from Oberlin’s David Orr, a superstar in the field of sustainability education. Talking at the pace of a New Yorker on speed, Orr intelligently spoke out against the mass denial that prevents us from dealing with the unfathomable events ahead. He exhorted the audience that we don’t have time for lime green solutions like clean coal and nuclear power – instead, we must “solve for pattern” and attack the root of the problem. During the Q&A, I asked him if he thought a capitalist society could ever be sustainable. He said he didn’t know.

Despite the profoundly scary stuff being discussed, the conference was hardly all doom and gloom. In fact, there was a palpable sense of excitement present amongst the participants and presenters. Focus the Nation’s goal is nothing short of sparking a massive social movement, and after seeing the energy and creativity of the attendees, it seems like it just might happen. I’m no activist; I’d rather spend an hour resizing jpegs than writing my congressman. But Eban, Orr, and the others there made it clear that there’s no time to lose: either we start spurring massive change in the next two years, or we risk the very real possibility of a Children Of Men future. Now’s the time to act – and Focus the Nation we shall.