Keith Soster, director of student engagement of MDining, said he has always been a sustainability geek. However, working in this role heightened his interest in MDining’s efforts to merge food and sustainability. 

MDining’s latest sustainability collaboration is with Michigan Apple Crunch, a regional program focused on promoting the consumption of the Midwest’s local produce. The program began about six years ago.

“It’s an opportunity for us to celebrate all the different foods that we can grow in the Midwest,” Soster said.

Michigan is the second most crop diverse state in the country, just behind California. 

Soster said students of all ages can open up their minds to what is possible as far as local and seasonal food. He wants to change people’s tendency to gravitate toward the “most perfect apple” when walking into stores like Kroger. 

Soster referenced a student group blind taste test several years ago where students sampled two apples — one from Kroger, the “perfect” apple, and the local one with blemishes. Blindfolded, everybody chose the local and sustainable apple. 

“When we buy local and eat local and sustainable food, it’s gonna taste a whole lot better,” Soster said. 

The Michigan Apple Crunch initiative is just one example of ways that people can engage with the local harvest. Getting students involved with food sustainability on campus is really about increasing awareness, Soster said. 

“Being able to show in their dining halls where the food that is grown at the campus is utilized in our menu, I think is important, too,” Soster said. 

Public Policy senior Grace Hermann, who studies food systems and agricultural policy, said programs like this could help college students learn more about sustainable food practices.

“I grew up in a house where we ate meat nearly every day and never really considered what the implications of that were until I got to college,” Hermann said. “I also think that a lot of students may lack knowledge surrounding diets that are not focused around meat, may not have been exposed to certain foods or may have just never considered how their diet and consumption habits play a role in environmental issues.”

LSA junior Brian Devorkin works with Soster to bring this knowledge of food sustainability and wellness to the student body, partnering with local farmers to build relationships. He said Soster’s passion helps fuel students’ interest in sustainability.

“They build the (relationships) because of the personalities they bring to the table, and just the connections and the professionalism,” Devorkin said. “The chefs are just awesome. He (Soster) has so many connections and so many people that would love to help out, and just love his mission.”

Though Michigan Apple Crunch is MDining’s latest project, the team’s sustainability and food security initiatives have been in motion for years. Others include the Campus Farm, founded in 2012, and Sustainable Mondays

Hermann lived in East Quad Residence Hall her first two years at the University of Michigan and praised Sustainable Mondays for introducing more environmentally friendly options to the dining halls. 

“Efforts like that by MDining to decrease meat consumption and provide students with alternative options are important as well,” Hermann said. “Based on my conversations with folks from MDining from my class, I believe they also try to source from local farmers when possible, which is good for our local economy as well. Though UMich is far from perfect, all of these efforts do help the University be a better community member.”

Another challenge is making sustainable food options more widely available for students regardless of socioeconomic background. This included adding paid positions to Campus Farm, therefore allowing low-income students to become involved in campus food sustainability.

In the past year, Soster helped spearhead the North Campus Food Distribution program, an effort to make food access more equitable across the University and decrease food insecurity. 

Another initiative is the Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit dedicated to recovering leftover food from university dining halls and donating it to local food banks.

“Any leftover food is basically used,” Devorkin said. “It’s not thrown away. They kind of limit that waste.”

One of MDining’s latest initiatives is carbon tracking and identifying the carbon value of MDining’s menu items. In 2019, Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution to reach carbon neutrality by 2030.

“There’s lots of work to be done across the campus community,” Soster said. “But I think dining can lead the way and model the behavior that we hope others will jump on to.”

Hermann worries about how sustainable food practices are often overlooked in favor of mass production, echoing Soster’s hope for a shift towards seasonal and local produce. 

“I think it is really important that when we talk about food sustainability we approach it not just from an environmental standpoint, but also from an economic and social standpoint,” Hermann said. “Food that is truly sustainable should also positively support our local economies, as well as the health, safety and economic well-being of workers and consumers.” 

Soster and Devorkin said MDining’s efforts to create more sustainable food practices are worth the years of slow progress. 

“I want to leave my contributions to the world and my children in a better way than I found them,” Soster said. “I know that sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.”

Contributor Nina Molina can be reached at nimolina@umich.edu

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