Communing through food, collaborating for a healthy planet

Here’s how one university has joined their reputation for excellence in dining with an efficient sustainability metric tracking system through community-distributed responsibility—and won awards for both.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a ripple of impacts on college campuses. University leadership and sustainability professionals alike have been working hard to reimagine the student experience with new health and safety requirements. With many of these necessary changes to operations and the student experience, there are certainly many things that students will miss come the new school year. 

For students at UMass Amherst, many of whom will be remote during the fall, they may be missing one of the more practical, yet essential, parts of their experience: the dining hall food.

We’ll go out on a limb and say that for most students at UMass Amherst, the food was probably just one item on a long list of the institution’s strong selling points. And for good reason: UMass Dining Services has been ranked as having the best campus food in the country for four years in a row by the Princeton Review. From hand-rolled sushi to Pad Thai, from locally sourced ingredients to healthful, flavorful, beautifully rendered meals, UMass Dining has stepped up as an innovator and leader in university cuisine.

What could taste even better, you surely wonder? UMass Dining is helping the institution win multiple awards—including AASHE STARS® Gold ratings for five years running, thanks to the amazing work of the dining staff, Ezra Small, and Nathanael Schildbach, and from a third-party review by GreenerU.

Good-tasting and good for you (and the planet!)

Sustainable sourcing, a transparent supply chain, and prioritized procurement of ingredients and foods that are certified organic, sustainable, fair trade, and humane is UMass’s secret to racking up more points in STARS’ Food & Dining category than all but one of the nine STARS Platinum-ranked schools (nice work, UConn!). UMass Dining stands out for its drive to continually improve the dining experience through use of ingredients that are both good for human health and the environment.

Serving sustainable food is a big task. Serving sustainable food that is also the best campus food in the country is a gargantuan task. It takes tracking and transparency to provide meals to approximately 13,500 students living on campus last year and continually find ways to acknowledge Scope 3 emissions mitigation. This work includes access to quality food through campus permaculture gardens, food security initiatives, and a how-to guide for food service operators.

Reaching for the STARS

UMass Dining’s collaboration with the Sustainable UMass office is just once example of cross-campus coordination for tracking and analyzing data related to sustainability. Working closely with faculty members, library staff, facilities, and residential life, UMass Amherst has developed a distributed model of responsibility for data gathering—alleviating the seemingly endless list of STARS “to-do’s” off the shoulders of any one person and ensuring that sustainability is everyone’s business.

A rigorous and highly effective approach, UMass Amherst plans to annually submit a STARS report with the help of stakeholders across campus, creating a campus-wide and ongoing sustainability commitment. From students to faculty and staff to the Board of Trustees, the commitment to sustainability and tracking process can be seen at all levels.

In 2016, the Board of Trustees of the UMass system approved a system-wide Sustainability Policy. The policy outlines clear metrics linked to STARS and requires annual reports to the presidential office. This creates a system where STARS data enhances institutional sustainability across levels of decision making. Now more than ever, sustainability offices have been given new responsibilities, and STARS can be a helpful tool to track and celebrate sustainability with changing work loads and capacities.

Desiring a third-party review to affirm the quality of their reported information, UMass Amherst enlisted the help of GreenerU to carefully assess their submission for accuracy and thoroughness. GreenerU read through the report and analyzed each credit, suggesting copy edits, content overhauls, and everything in between.

Working closely with the UMass Amherst’s core STARS team, GreenerU offered up actionable recommendations on how the university could improve their STARS reporting process and suggestions for areas to improve campus sustainability based on the data trends revealed in the STARS framework—all while adhering to an expedited timeline based on an ideal submission date.

The constellation: carbon mitigation planning

Collaboration across the institution is not only a model for STARS but also  for comprehensive planning processes at UMass Amherst to advance efforts across sustainability efforts of zero waste plan, resilience campus plan, and carbon mitigation plan.

Aligning institutional efforts with the system-wide sustainability policy, UMass Amherst’s Chancellor has taken efforts one step further. In 2019, the Carbon Mitigation Task Force at UMass Amherst, composed of faculty, students, and staff, was tasked to develop a comprehensive, high level feasibility study that seeks to achieve carbon neutrality from 100% renewable energy for all heating, cooling, and electricity systems of the main campus by 2030.  GreenerU is supporting this effort, as part of the consulting team collaborating with the task force.

Similar to their STARS reporting framework, collaboration that supports needed climate action while also adjusting to the needs of the community has been a pillar of this project, especially with the many changes that have come in 2020.  You can learn more about the carbon mitigation plan in this helpful video, produced by GreenerU, as a part of the virtual UMass Earth Week series. 

With these smart collaborative models in place, the stars are aligning for UMass Amherst—pun most definitely intended.

From climate action planning to STARS, GreenerU can support your campus throughout its discovery of ways to develop smart, attainable, and actionable steps toward carbon neutrality. Contact us to start a conversation today.

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