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Sustainable Food at the University of Michigan: Alex Bryan

Alex Bryan explains "Sustainable Mondays" initiative at the University of Michigan Campus Farms.
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Welcome back to this teach out on food sustainability. I’m here today with Alex Bryan, who is the Sustainable Food Program Manager, here at the University of Michigan and we’re going to be talking a little bit about how sustainable food fits within a broader spectrum of University of Michigan sustainability goals. So, thanks for joining us today. Of course, happy to be here. Perfect. So, let’s just jump right in there, can you tell me a little bit more about where food fits in with this larger ecosystem of U of M as we are starting to think about sustainability. I’ll start here where we are in greenhouse five, the campus farm at botanical gardens. We’ve got food all around this here.
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So, we were looking at micro greens of Sancho, peppers eggplant. Majority of this food end up back in our dining program with Michigan dining. Our goal is to purchase about a $100,000 a year annually from our campus farm, right into our dining halls so that students are growing food, preparing that food, eating that food on campus, which ties into the broader goal of University of Michigan which is 20% local sustainable by 2025.
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Now that local sustainable definition is something that we’ve worked with some national partners, ASHE, the Association for Advancement for sustainability in higher education and some others to benchmark what that looks like and so really what we’re targeting is food that’s coming from within 250 miles of campus or that is third-party certified sustainable, so that could be organic, it could be pasture raised, it could be just one of some of these other certifying bodies out there and right now we’re at about 17 almost 18% and we’re rapidly approaching that goal and I’m excited.
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So when we hit that goal, move the goalpost again and will continue to move along that chain of what sustainability goal that we have next set out they’re. Wonderful. So, I’ve heard a little bit about your Sustainable Monday’s program, can you tell me a little bit more about how that came to be and what that program entails? Yes, Sustainable Monday started originally as meatless Mondays familiar with that concept that Meatless Monday is try not to eat meat on Mondays but we realized that framing our sustainability efforts in a way that takes something away, takes away choice, is not going to be well-received one by students and here’s just maybe a good framing that we want to get long-term buy-in.
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So we re-framed and call it Sustainable Monday’s and we focus and try to highlight all of the different sustainable efforts that we have within Michigan dining on that one day. We’re doing many of these things throughout the week but we really push it hard on the marketing front and then we’ve shifted some of our food during those days to highlight things that are lower on the climate standpoint. So lower greenhouse gas emissions from that food, typically that means less meat but that doesn’t mean taking all the meat choice away are you there? So you tell me a little bit more about impact that program had so far.
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So that program been running it for about the last year and some students from the sustainable living experience which is a living experience here on campus where they’re living and learning in sustainability. They approached and said “Hey we really curious about sustainable Mondays, we want to look at the data, can we figure out is it actually having an impact?” So, we sat them down with a whole bunch of different data on different couple Mondays and a couple of Wednesdays and they went through and put it all into a calculator and found out, we’re looking at about 60% or more greenhouse gas emissions reduction on Mondays alone, which is just astronomical. We think about 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
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Just there’s nothing else we are doing that has that big of an impact in such a large manner. That’s amazing. Yeah. Congratulations. Thanks and I’m excited because students drive our Sustainable Monday program and they’re also the ones that are playing around with this data and learning from that. They’re putting together stuff that we hope in the next year we’ll be able to publish a paper on some of this work and that’s primarily driven through that student education component here.
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So, when we think about University of Michigan which is a really large research institution, can you tell us a little bit more about how you think about food waste and especially looking at the scales of the dining halls here and what that looks like? So, similarly we have university-wide goals on our waste diversion. We have a target goal I think 40% waste diversion from Landfill. So, majority of that waste is food waste. So, we have implemented composting across all of our dining halls. So, all nine of our dining halls, pre and post consumer composting down to switching out the Tea Company we use, the teabags that don’t have a little plastic bits or metal staple on them anymore.
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So everything in our dining hall is going to be composted. All of our to-go packaging is all compostable. So, we’re switching over all of our materials and then it comes the hard part which is that culture shift. So, how do we educate our customers, our students, that everything is in fact possible that we do need to put those in the right bins that contamination is the enemy of what we’re trying to do there and so that’s the next phase that we’re entering into and hopefully this next fall, we’ll be having composting and all of our residence halls as well at the hall level so that we can hit students when they’re here that first year.
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Part of their day to day habit is seeing the compost next to the landfill and recycling and so that we can reduce the overall waste impact. Wonderful. So, thinking about whether you’re a student or a staff member and maybe faculty member here at the University of Michigan or whether you’re a learner and a join in this teach out from abroad, what is one action or one area of actions that you’d recommend that somebody take? I think it comes down to we want to retain choice. Choice is really important but helping folks make a more informed choice. So, asking for things that are maybe, I have a burger but asked for a blended burger right?
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So cut it with mushrooms 40% that’s 40% less beef that we’re eating in that situation. So, I think our customers drive our choice and we help inform our customers along the way. So, just asking for more climate friendly options. Like eating on that scale choosing items that are more plant-based than meat-based is going to be just your blanket statement the way to make that impact go around. Perfect. So, it sounds like having being able to share your opinion, share your voice and have it heard. Yeah. So thinking about the shirt that you’re wearing, it fits in really well you toss them out. Yeah. What that is?
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The students have you also seen food program and a lot of our other foods students loved the food puns. I’ve got the Kale to the Victors T-Shirt on today. They also have leaders and beats and don’t forget to grow blue. Perfect. Well, thank you so much Alex for joining us in this conversation and thank you for joining us in this segment. We look forward to continuing the discussion about sustainable food and other parts of this teach out.

Many of us have heard of “Meatless Mondays” but Alex Bryan and others at the University of Michigan are moving beyond a focus on meat through a new initiative called “Sustainable Mondays.” In this segment, Alex and Benjamin talk about this innovative new initiative and learn how the University of Michigan is approaching the issue of sustainable food, covering topics like food-related emissions reduction, food waste, and actions that each individual can take within their own community to help reduce the impact of food on climate change.

Alex Bryan is the Sustainable Food Program Manager for the University of Michigan as well as an affiliate of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. Full bio here

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