Last Tuesday, a group of staff and administrators from OU Housing and Food Services visited CIS to present on food sustainability, a topic of increasing importance on campus and throughout the world. “This talk is part of a broader project about food,” Dean Suzette Grillot explained to the group assembled in Farzaneh. “We thought there was no better way to start our conversations than to do it locally. But this is global, too.”
Because any discussion of food is best accompanied by lunch, attendees of the event were treated to a spread of locally sourced and sustainable food, including vegetarian and meat lasagnas, roasted local vegetables, and a green salad with local tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and lettuce from OU’s own Leafy Green Machine — a compact, hydroponic farm run in part by students from the organization OUr Earth.
The panel of presenters offered a look behind the scenes at OU’s efforts to provide nutritious, local and sustainable food, combat food insecurity and responsibly manage waste. Over the past few years especially, OU has set its sights on local sourcing, Housing and Food Director of Business Operations Kevin Barker explained. While it isn’t possible to be 100% locally sourced due to the region’s climate (and thus limited vegetable output), Barker noted that the university strives to purchase from producers within a 250-mile radius, including many in Oklahoma.
One of these local producers is Brad Burnett, OU’s Associate VP for Enrollment and Student Financial Services, whose Ivey Acres Farm supplies OU with cage-free eggs. Burnett spoke about the evolution of his farm, which has grown from a tiny operation to a coop with five partners and 7,000 chickens. “These are the types of partnerships that OU Housing and Food tries to build,” noted Associate VP and Director of Food Services Dave Annis. “That great story goes beyond eggs. It goes to the farmers’ coop in Alva, Oklahoma where we get our bread. It goes to where we get our cheese, 1907 [a local supplier of grassfed beef] — where we get our beef, and so on.”
The most local of all OU’s producers is the Leafy Green Machine (LGM), tucked away right on campus near Cate Center. LGM manager Windeon McDowell explained that this “vertical farm” — housed inside a shipping container — has a 365-day growing season and only uses 10 gallons of water and 120 kilowatt hours per day. Due to climate change, McDowell noted, “urban farming is increasingly becoming something of vital importance.” So in 2016, at the behest of students seeking this kind of sustainable practice, the OU LGM was launched. Ever since, it has had a positive influence on campus cuisine, providing crisp and delicious produce.
The second half of the discussion shifted to issues of food insecurity, waste management and new initiatives in campus dining. First, Annis presented on the OU Food Pantry — new in 2017 — which serves any OU community member in need. Located in Stubbman Village and staffed by student volunteers, the pantry has been a success so far, serving 38-50 people per week.
Residential Dining Director Keith Mackie followed up with a discussion of food waste — an issue every university must face. Technology like Couch’s “food digestor” is one effective method, he explained, but OU dining also employs simpler tactics, like donating to the Salvation Army, re-using leftovers and reducing plate size, a new proposal. Smaller plates will not only encourage students to waste less food, Mackie hopes, but also choose healthy portions. OU Dietician Fran Olsen Sharp further emphasized this connection in her presentation, pointing out that a plant-based diet with smaller portions has direct implications for sustainability.
While much of the talk focused on current initiatives, Director of Board Operations Robert Weaver also spoke about future campus dining options in the works. These include increased gluten- and dairy-free choices, a coffee shop serving OKC’s Elemental Coffee and a pizza/pasta shop with “Made in Oklahoma” ingredients. Also in the planning stages is a locally sourced food marketplace modeled on the Eataly concept, featuring a deli, kebab shop and veggie butcher.
Though Weaver acknowledged that a veggie butcher might seem out there to many Oklahomans, such forward-thinking endeavors highlight OU’s commitment to a healthier, more conscious future. Along these lines, the marketplace will also provide diners with information on the sources of its food. “What we really want to do is give our students a sense of the impact of buying local,” he explained.
Overall, Housing and Food’s presentation was eye opening for those in attendance, providing a local guide to the kinds of strategies being employed worldwide to tackle food issues. Meagan Harden, an Environmental Sustainability grad and first-year Master’s student in Social Work and International Studies, was initially interested in the event because food issues are so connected to these fields. “So many of the issues we’ve talked about in Social Work relate to food insecurity — poverty, racism, education,” she said. “I was interested to see what OU was doing with these issues.” Harden left the talk impressed by the university’s level of engagement. “I knew that they had the Leafy Green Machine and that they were instituting some policies at Couch. But I didn’t realize the interconnectedness of what they were doing, like with the food pantry.”
At the end of the discussion, Dean Grillot thanked the speakers and encouraged all who attended to get involved and spread the word. “Let others know about these issues and what OU is doing,” she said.
Stay tuned for more food-related discussions, lectures and events at CIS! For info on upcoming events, see our calendar or follow us on Twitter.