Innovation of the Week: Student Program Connects Consumers to the Food System Process

By Graham Salinger

In 2009, the average distance that a granny smith apple traveled to get to McGill University in Quebec, Canada, was nearly 3,542 miles. Meanwhile, the dining halls serve approximately 2,500 meals a day. While students may not know where their food comes from, a 2009-2010 survey that was conducted by McGill’s Food and Dining Services, revealed that 80 percent of students believe environmental practices are important to food systems.

The McGill Food Systems Project implements student-led research into sustainable food options. (Photo credit: www.McGill.ca)

In an effort to increase  the amount of food that is sourced locally, students at McGill University established The McGill Food Systems Project (MFSP). The project, which began in 2009, engages students in the food system process by supporting student-led applied research that helps the University establish best practices for purchasing sustainable food. Collaborating with professors, the McGill Food and Dining Services, and the McGill Office of Sustainability, students conduct research and implement projects that help inform the University about the source of its food.

“The objective of these actions is to transition our food supply to more sustainable and local sources,” explains Laura Rhodes, co-founder of MFSP along with Jonathan Glencross.  “We want to build a capacity to meaningfully assess what is or isn’t sustainable food. Our role is to communicate in the sense of building capacity to make sustainable choices,” notes Rhodes, who is currently in charge of making sustainable food purchases for McGill’s dining services.

The centerpiece of the MFSP is getting dining halls to buy food from local suppliers. McGill’s local food sources include Ferme Desmarais, a 35-acre certified organic vegetable farm in Quebec, and the McGill Farmers Market. MFSP also provides support for the Macdonald Campus Farm, a certified organic farm that is operated by McGill’s School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. With McGill’s renewed focus on sustainability, Macdonald Campus Farm  is now McGill’s primary supplier of fruits and vegetables and currently operates its own dairy farm, orchard, and sugar house.

MFSP also worked with McGill’s Food and Dining services in implementing sustainable food purchasing guidelines. These guidelines include, serving only sustainable sea food in accordance with  SeaChoice’s standards, baking only with Québec Vrai organic flour and locally milled grains, and purchasing only free-range eggs sourced from Quebec. This fall, students will be supplied with even more locally sourced meals because McGill is partnering with Local Food Plus (LFP), a Canadian-based non-profit that certifies local food producers as sustainable, to supply McGill with food from LFP certified farms.

Many of the projects that MFSP takes on result from student-based research that assesses McGill’s food sources and proposes ways to become more sustainable.  Students then work with dining services  to implement these strategies. The sustainable seafood guidelines were formed following student research that took place last fall.  The students work with dining services to make sustainable purchasing decisions by identifying sellers that practice sustainable methods of harvesting seafood or fishing.

The School’s Meatless Monday campaign, which was inspired by the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health iniative to create awareness about the environmental and public health benefits of eating less meat, was also implemented as a result of student research. That research focused on finding ways to increase vegetarian and vegan options on campus.

While MFSP has received some criticism because the price of food has gone up, the executive chef for McGill’s dining services, Oliver de Volpi, believes that students will continue to have an appetite for sustainability. “We’re going to be something that I hope other universities are going to look at as a model,” Mr. de Volpi says. “I hope people are going to look at us and say, that’s something to be proud of.”

By involving students in the food system process, The McGill Food Systems Project helps students gain a better understanding of where their food comes from and gives them the opportunity to be responsible for sustainable food purchasing choices.

Do you know of any other ways that Universities are increasing the sustainability of their food sources? Let us know in the comments section! 

Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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