20 March, 2020

The Intersections of Food and Sustainability on Campus

Gabby Carrier
by Gabriela Warrior Renaud, Fairtrade Canada

Gabriella Carrier is a Sustainability Manager for Aramark at Carleton University. Gabriella, or Gabby, advances a culture of environmental and social stewardship within Carleton’s dining services, largely through waste reduction and ethical purchasing strategies. She is particularly passionate about environmentally friendly packaging within food spaces and teaching others how to properly recycle. When she’s not talking about trash, Gabby enjoys doing graphic design work in her role - a skill she developed through social media content creation for Carleton’s 2019 Fair Trade Campus Week.

FC: You started your role as Carleton’s Sustainability Manager in July of 2018. I think this puts Carleton in a pretty unique position in terms of having a role dedicated to campus sustainability. Could you describe the shifts that happened on campus to prioritise sustainability and this particular role?

GC: The role was created as an outcome of Aramark re-winning the Carleton University Dining Services contract, which went out for rebid at the end of 2017. Aramark decided to create an individual sustainability position as a way to signal how much we were going to prioritize sustainability efforts, a priority which was communicated by Carleton as something they wanted to see more of in their dining operations.

I don't know if you're familiar with The Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)? They [offer a] STARS (Sustainability Tracking and Rating System) assessment, which is one of the world’s most comprehensive sustainability assessment for colleges and universities. STARS assesses the sustainable nature of a school’s dining, primarily through the lens of procurement and waste reduction. Those two themes helped defined my role, and STARS provided a guiding path for my role’s priorities. Aramark decided to create its own sustainability position, and like you said, it's very unique. In most campuses, the dining services’ support team includes a dietician, whose role encompasses all things ‘health and wellness’. This person typically takes on sustainability initiatives in addition to serving as a dietician. So Carleton is quite fortunate to have the resources that allow for much more in-depth sustainability work to take place within their dining operations.

Can you walk us through your general responsibilities as Sustainability Manager?

I see my job as having two sides, one of which is technical sustainability work (that encompasses those two themes of procurement and waste reduction), and the other side which is telling the story behind my sustainability work. The storytelling side involves a lot of marketing/social media and student engagement. On the technical sustainability side of my role, I do a lot recycling and waste reduction/diversion education, often working with our student interns to educate the campus community about how to deal with waste properly. From an internal perspective, the waste side of my role involves assessing our packaging, making sure that what we're using is not only environmentally sustainable from the packaging material itself, but that disposing of the packaging is in line with what Ottawa municipal facilities can handle. The procurement side of my role involves a lot of local and ethical food work, which is where Fairtrade intersects. For me, local food work has almost become synonymous with community networking. I spend a decent amount of time trying to figure out which Ottawa-based producers can meet the needs of Carleton’s scale and dietary demands, all while trying to navigate Aramark's larger corporate purchasing framework and aligning that framework with local purchasing. Some times those two are in conflict, so that's been a little bit of a hurdle that I've navigated. It's been encouraging to watch us successfully utilize somewhat smaller community suppliers to serve so many students, while coupling those purchases with larger company priorities. The other major part of sustainability work involves background research on certifications, such as Fairtrade and Green Restaurant. I’m continually trying to find different ways to quantify or certify our efforts. [Programs] like Fair Trade [Campus] are great, because it gives our ethical procurement more legitimacy.

In your latest blog post about Carleton’s sustainability achievements of 2019, you mention the caf becoming a Certified Green Restaurant. Can you describe what this certification means and what kind of impacts you have seen around sustainable food and waste reduction?

The Green Restaurant Association has developed a science-based certification that assesses the environmental impact of a restaurant’s building and operations. I was particularly excited about Carleton’s dining hall pursuing becoming a Certified Green Restaurant because the certification focuses on utilities and facility operations, an area of which I have a lot of interest. Points were awarded for everything from our kitchen equipment’s energy efficiency to the safety and environmental impact of our cleaning products. We earned major points as a result of our dining hall’s ‘Zero-Waste’ status, which means that 90% or more of the total waste generated from the location (in terms of weight), is going somewhere else besides landfill. Achieving zero-waste status is largely possible due to our elimination of disposable dishware, and food waste reduction strategies in our food prep processes. We have online systems that track how much food we are throwing out and our chefs go over it every week to create waste reduction goals: "Okay, last week we threw out ___ pounds of ___ dish, and we served ___ number students at this time, so we know next time we prepare this dish during this specific time of the day we need to change our recipe size ___ amount." These technical tools really help prevent waste when preparing food, and for any food waste that is generated, it’s composted. So waste reduction was a big part of why we got our certification. We also earned some points around education, for how we communicate our sustainability priorities to our staff and leave them well informed on how to operate, but also how we educate the students on what we're doing to be sustainable. While Green Restaurant is a bit more of a technical certification, it also addressed food purchasing. We got points for Fairtrade and for being able to prove that we buy a percentage of our goods from within a certain kilometer radius. Certifications like Green Restaurant can be difficult to access for organizations that don't have a defined sustainability position, because it takes a lot of time to gather all of this info. For example, establishing a local food purchasing figure, is very time consuming. One of the first major projects I took on in my role was developing a sustainable tracking database for our purchases. I basically classify every item that we buy, and I continually do research to answer the “Who?” and “Where?” questions around our ingredients. And until you get that database up and running, it takes a long time to try and state how much you're buying locally. So again, having that a dedicated sustainability position is key, as it makes these types of certifications a lot more accessible.

We talk a lot about how supporting local food and agriculture play an important role in lowering our impact. But that doesn’t really tackle the issues around sourcing foods like coffee and cocoa, which is where Fairtrade seeks to bridge that gap. How do you see local and fair trade working together in the bigger picture of sustainability?

Measuring and defining fair trade helps solidify the public's understanding and trust in characterizing it as sustainable. And I think local food is beginning to enter that same journey as fair trade has been on for a decade or two now. Why is local food sustainable? You're investing in your community. Okay, so what does that mean? There's so many different angles of sustainability, and just because it was purchased on your street doesn't always necessarily mean that it has a better impact on your climate. It could have a lot of things you need to take into consideration in addition to “Where did the food come from?”. What agricultural practices were used to grow the food? How were the employees at the farm treated? All of these different social and environmental angles need to be taken into consideration as we start to associate ‘local’ with ‘sustainable’. And if I’m being honest, we still haven't come to a very cohesive understanding of ‘local’ yet. So fingers crossed that in the next few years the food industry is able to start measuring ‘local’ in a more universal, but also rigorous, sense. Fairtrade is measured using many technical characteristics, ranging from pricing schemes and sustainable agricultural techniques to gender equity. The food industry has begun incorporating those types of characteristics into ‘local’ definitions, but being able to access all of that information about ingredients from a purchasing side (like myself) is very difficult. So I'm hoping to see the same push for transparency that Fairtrade has spurred within global food commodity markets arise within more domestic food purchasing systems, because access to information regarding Fairtrade and local products both connect consumers to the people behind the product they’re buying. When you spend more money on something sustainable and you feel good about it, do you know why you're paying more for it? We pay more for sustainable goods because we believe that it's better for the planet and the people, and Fairtrade's done a good job at communicating why we should believe that through measuring the impact of Fairtrade’s certification standards. I think local food has the same power to do that, and people like myself help push the needle a little bit by compiling all of this purchasing information and pushing the needle towards more standards. But I think local and fair trade pair well in the sense that they both help “tell the story” of a sometimes complex supply chain, and I think Fairtrade has provided an example of the importance of definitions and standards when we tell that sustainability story.

It is clear that having a dedicated sustainability manager has been a key ingredient in the success of Carleton’s sustainability efforts. What do you see as the benefits of this kind of focus and how could this kind of organisational change be used at other levels?

In most major institutions that aren't primarily an environmentally focused organization, the first sustainability position typically originates from within the facilities department, where their main priorities revolve around utilities and infrastructure- mostly because there’s an easy business case for this position, given that there's a lot of a lot of money to be saved through retrofits and energy. And so that position typically pays for itself, and it's a pretty easy sell to begin pushing sustainability in an organization.

I think that food is a very unique form of sustainability, it intersects with people in a way that facilities' sustainability work doesn't necessarily; food is such an integral part of our day to day lives, in a social and cultural sense. We are buying it and consuming it every day, all throughout the day. Connecting people with their food is such a powerful thing to me, and I think that having someone dedicated purely to sustainable food systems is one of the fastest ways to get students to feel that their university experience is being taken to a more sustainable level. Students’ awareness of my sustainability work is largely due to Carleton Dining’s incredible marketing team. My job is way more impactful because I have strong marketing resources. If you were to stick me here on my own, and just say, "Do sustainability work," and not have access to people who can do photography or event coordination or marketing and whatnot, I would likely spend a lot more time in my office. Instead, I get to do a lot of on-the-ground work because other people on our team are able to spend time creating content to promote my work. Also, given my younger, fresh-out-of-university profile, I have found it easy to bridge the gap between student groups who are passionate about the environment and the university. Because when I was a student, I sometimes thought "I don't feel like the university *really* wants to work with students on these environmental issues, we're all working in silos," but by adding more sustainability professionals to a school’s assets, especially a younger one, is great because it helps address that feeling many students who want a more eco-conscious campus experience.

A campus is a really interesting place to watch a social justice movement like fair trade to grow, because there are so many different types of groups interacting with it. From food service, to businesses and academics. How do you see the conversation around fair trade reaching out further than food services and into the classroom and really, into the fabric of our education? 

Just in the last few years since I've been in a university space, I've seen a progression of Fairtrade mostly being visible in activist student group spaces, to a much more normalized expectation by all coffee and tea drinkers that they want more out of their beverages; and this expectation of Fairtrade is beginning to extend outside beverages. And so now when you have [someone like me] who has the time to make Fairtrade visible, I think it's done a great job of lifting fair trade up from a student push. And that's what comes along with a Fair Trade Campus designation in general. It transitions from the activist angle, to "This is the new norm," and that's how I feel about most sustainability causes at this point. This role has put me on the other side of the campus sustainability work. Not long away I was the student, pushing my university to make a variety of sustainability changes, and now I am on the receiving end of those student demands.  It is easy to find yourself on the defense when you represent the institution; but I make a conscious effort to shift my view of the most vocal activist groups from "Oh, this is a potential PR issue," to “These students provide an opportunity to influence the university’s leadership and sustainability priorities”. So I welcome these student movements with open arms, because they move the needle, as Fairtrade has proven. Just a few years ago students who were demanding the Certification and were holding the university's feet to the fire, wanting more ethical coffee purchasing by the school. Now it's going to be green investment, divestment from fossil fuels, or labor issues; it's going to be a variety of things, but we need to welcome those things with open arms because Fairtrade has been a great example of small organized efforts tangibly shaping the new norm. We're starting to see more students demand ‘sustainable’ food; and even though that means a few different things, these student efforts influence my role’s priorities. So I think it’s safe to say students will always have an important role in sustainable food systems.

On the final frontier of a really well integrated, sustainable, higher education organization, is the institution’s technical sustainability infrastructure work intertwining with the student’s academic experience. Because if a student is exposed to at least some of the facets of sustainability in the classroom, even if they didn't even have an interest in it, they’re receiving a much more formal discussion about it. Not to mention the validation of sustainability’s importance when a professor spends time incorporating it into their lessons. I talked about that STARS assessment a little bit earlier. A huge part of that assessment is the presence of sustainability within academic programming. And that is probably one of the biggest rooms for growth within Carleton, and almost every higher ed organization, bridging the gap between facility-oriented and academic sustainability efforts. Because if you think about it, the university is an academic institution first, but with many different departments whose work is not directly related to the classroom. Professors work in one circle, people like myself work in a food circle, people within energy work in a facilities circle, etc. To communicate the priorities of something like fair trade through academics, it means that individuals within University well above myself need to say, "This specifically is something we want visible in our programming." And this feat requires multiple circles work together. When the school decides they want to be any more sustainable, and they want to see it in their academics, it has to come from very high up, because you're going to have the silo effect a lot. Within Carleton, there are professors that discuss fair trade in some aspect, but it's very brief. I think that there's a lot of opportunity for more formal sustainability teaching in courses, especially for topics like fair trade, or more general ethical procurement, whether it's across business or development or environmental studies.

Carleton was crowned as the 2019 Fair Trade Campus Week All-Star! Yay! This was measured by a campus’ social media activity, and how engaging their posts were. We know how important social media is in raising awareness, but it has also really changes the landscape of social justice movements, who have historically depended on printed-out pamphlets and buttons to spread their message. What role does social media and digital communication in general play in your day-to-day?

It’s pretty wild that just three years ago Carleton became a Fair Trade designated Campus, and then this year we were able to pull off a Fair Trade Campus Week so engaging that we ended up winning this award. It speaks volumes as to how strong of a team we have here, but also highlights our shift to more efforts on digital engagement throughout FTCW. We had physical events all throughout the Week; but in terms of who truly read our message, our social media is the way that we are able to communicate a lot of ideas, in a short amount of time, and in a semi-permanent fashion. And I think that's what I really like about social media and online content creation. When you go to our website and social media platforms, there is a history of fair trade that's reflected - multiple years of Fair Trade Campus Weeks, a review of our product offerings, links to Fairtrade Canada as a whole, and things that you can easily share and push. The ability to do contests that get crazy engagement is aided substantially by online platforms, and you also get way more students willing to ask more in-depth questions via online platforms. Typical in-person engagement opportunities with students throughout FTCW often only provide a limited window to educate, and an even more limited window to field student questions. If a student with no previous experiences with Fairtrade walks up to a tabling event during FTCW, they likely will read a pamphlet or play a game, and be like "Oh, this is cool, we’re a Fair Trade Campus, I like it, that's good!" but they've only got five minutes and they maybe don't have a ton of time to do much research or ask question if they want to. But with the internet, you can see a post that's talking about Fairtrade facts or prompting them to think a little bit more, and they can go do their own research with the links we’ve provided. Sometimes students will ask much more inquisitive questions about the Certification, "So why is that sustainable? What do you do with gender and equity?" And stuff that I think a lot of students wouldn't necessarily have the time to do on the spot. So I like that about online social media content, and just the shareability of it. The National Challenge that Fairtrade Canada hosts is such a great example of the power of social media also because I watch all these other schools participating, and get to see other ideas and inquisitive questions come about. Being inspired by other groups and schools through social media also helps foster a sense of community around Fairtrade.

I put a bit more effort this year into Fairtrade Certified brand recognition than I had previously. I wanted the Week to go beyond understanding the Certification and moving more towards behavior change. I want students feeling more confident about spending their money on Fairtrade products, whether it be in a grocery store or at a campus café,  and I think that brand recognition is a big part of that. So I had fun making a guessing game that involved placing logos from different food brands that were similar in product nature, such as various coffee chains or ice cream companies, next to each other and having students identify the brand with most Fairtrade Certified products. The relatively simple nature of the game made student engagement easy, but also impactful. Students see brands all day, they're oversaturated with product offerings. You only get a few minutes with a student and you could talk for hours about what is fair trade and all the different components about it. If you can get the basics down in a minute or two, you're like, "Okay, so next time you go to buy your coffee, you have these offerings in front of you, what kind of choices could you make here?" Behavior change is stimulated also by understanding how the price of a product related to its impact. That's something I want to work on more for 2020 - breaking down the Fairtrade Premium, and trying to better examine price differences from a consumer perspective. “This Fairtrade product is a $1.25 more than the conventional option, but what does that additional $1.25 look like in terms of worker rights and environmental protections?” That can be tough because the retail prices of product vary from location to location, and that price difference can take many different formats for positive impact across commodity groups. But I’m looking forward to the challenge, and taking Carleton’s Fairtrade engagement to the next level throughout 2020.