Earth's Bounty: Going on a Low-Carbon Diet

Companies that operate cafeterias in colleges, workplaces, and museums are beginning to offer more sustainable foods. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan visited Grove City College to see what students think. This report is part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.

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OPEN: Companies that operate cafeterias in colleges, workplaces, and museums are beginning to offer more sustainable foods. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan visited Grove City College to see what students think. This report is part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.

JORDAN: Grove City College junior Chris Sager has been eating a lot less beef lately. She says it's mostly to stay slim for her upcoming wedding day, and to avoid pesticides.

BRING UP CAFETERIA SOUND

But on a recent afternoon in the cafeteria, she tells a friend about another reason to cut down on burgers.

SEGAR: I'm a biology major so I'm studying environmental stuff like that now, so I was just talking about how overgrazing is a huge, like, global warming contributor and stuff.

JORDAN: The subject came up because of a placard on the table where Segar's eating, announcing the upcoming Low-Carbon Diet Day at the school. It'll happen April 22nd, Earth Day.

Grove City's foodservice contractor is promoting the concept. The company is California-based Bon Appetit Management. Its Low-Carbon Diet Day will also take place at more than 400 cafeterias across the country. That includes Yahoo And Oberlin College in Ohio. Although April 22nd will be the kickoff, Bon Appetit has promised --over several years -- to cut down on the use of beef and tropical fruits, and increase seafood that's lower on the food chain, like clams and mussels.

But there are big challenges to making greener grub. It costs more to buy antibiotic-free chicken and cage-free eggs. And Bon Appetit's general manager at Grove City, JonErik Germadnik, points out that his cafeteria is all-you-can-eat and some students don't want to wait in line. They plan ahead by getting extra food. So it's hard to regulate portion sizes.

GERMADNIK: They walk up to multiple stations, they can take whatever they'd like. They can go up for seconds and thirds. Do they really need to do that? How many times do they go up to the pizza line or the exhibition line and get food they're not going to eat?

JORDAN: Bon Appetit's also trying to reduce how much waste the kitchen produces. Some of its kitchens are composting and offering fryer oil for fuel. It's also tough to stay on top of what's coming into the kitchen. A distributor may not have the same commitment to sustainable foods as the foodservice company. Like the other day, when the Grove City kitchen staff received an order of farm-raised tilapia fish that came from China. This fish is considered one of the least sustainable choices.

But the biggest challenge of all may be keeping students happy with what they're eating. Germadnik says they can't tell students not to eat a burger. But cooks will cut down the portion size. The kitchen may also suggest other modifications, for example,

GERMADNIK: You choose to have a hamburger with lettuce and tomato and bacon and cheese, so if as a customer, we're saying, have a hamburger, but maybe not put cheese on it or don't put bacon on it today.

JORDAN: Bon Appetit will also start offering a carbon calculator that can be accessed online or by cellphone. You can type in LCD cheeseburger for Low Carbon Diet Cheeseburger (beep, beep, beep). Seconds later (sound of returned text message) voila, a message returns saying it's 1855 carbon points, which the message points out is very high. The message offers lower carbon producing options including a grilled chicken sandwich. The points are equivalent to less than an ounce of carbon dioxide emissions.

Some students at this small Christian college, like Josiah Leuenberger are game for learning more about whether their food's heating up the planet.

Today Leuenberger, a distance runner, is going through the salad bar line. The bar is full of the usual fixings -- cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce. They might seem low carbon but they're out of season. So they require more fuel than they would when they're available locally.

LEUENBERGER: If that really does make a difference, that's something that the majority of us need to be aware of

JORDAN: Other students, like senior Alex Frazier are unconvinced about humans impact on the climate. So, he says,

FRAZIER: I don't see a problem with global warming so I'm not going to change what I eat.

JORDAN: Bon Appetit says they know that in some areas of the country, the beef hamburger is a big seller. Student Chris Sager says Frazier's view about a disconnect between dining and climate is common here.

Sager: I think it's hard because it's one of those things where people say if I stop eating hamburgers, it's not going to make any significant dent, but maybe if more and more people do it, it'll help, hopefully.

JORDAN: And Bon Appetit points to research that says it does help. University of Chicago scientists say the average American creates two-point-eight tons of CO2 emissions each year by eating. That's more than the 2.2 tons each person generates by driving.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.