SERC’s Carbon Crew Is Changing How We Think About Dining Hall Food

What is Food Team and what are we doing?

In November 2013, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI), committing the UCs to carbon neutrality by 2025. Through the work of the CNI Engagement Fellows on every campus, students, faculty and community members have been able to become engaged with the goals of the initiative.

Last fall, Carbon Crew was born at UC Berkeley under the purview of the Student Environmental Resource Center’s Membership Program. Our brand new team of 12 people led carbon neutrality efforts here on campus through three different teams: Food Team, Campus Engagement Team, and CO2RE (CO2 Reduction and Education Team). This semester, we have more than 40 members.

Food Team is focused specifically on the ways in which we can help reduce UC Berkeley’s carbon footprint in regards to campus food systems. What that means in practice is the institutionalization of plant-forward dishes in dining halls that are healthy, cheap, and less carbon intensive than regular meals. So far, we’ve hosted six sampling events, each one focused on a different recipe designed by one of Cal Dining’s amazing chefs. We choose the key ingredients, and the chef comes up with a delicious dish. The events give us the chance to  spread awareness about the benefits – both in terms of the environment and personal health – of eating plant-forward and provide invaluable feedback about the recipes.

Why are you finding us in the dining halls?

Our main goal with this initiative is to implement more plant-based, environmentally sustainable dishes in the dining halls, and make sure these new meals are what you, the students, enjoy most. We want to expand and refocus dining hall menus so we no longer have to rely on just the salad bar to achieve our daily dose of vegetables and plant-based proteins. Accomplishing this involves combining the talents of our dining hall chefs with providing healthy, delicious ingredients from sustainable, often local, sources.

What does it mean to eat “plant-forward”?

Essentially it is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. It also reflects principles of health and environmental and social sustainability.

Introducing more plant-forward meals can allow our plates to be diversified, which means our bodies are exposed to a wider range of nutrients, such as the essential proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals. This is directly related to a healthier system that gives us more energy to thrive as students and people.

As students, particularly those who rely on the dining halls for their meals, we need to nourish our bodies properly in order to be capable to tackle our many responsibilities. By piling too much on our plates, metaphorically speaking, we are prone to filling our actual plates with food that compromises are health rather than recharging our systems.

Unfortunately, it is easier than not to fall in to this pattern given the food at our fingertips. Our dining hall menus are notorious for their lack of healthy, diverse options, particularly for people who choose to eat a more plant-based diet. In addition, our food choices are closely tied with our environmental impact— what we eat and where it is sourced can significantly increase of decrease our carbon footprint, as individuals and as a school.

This initiative is also largely about making our dining halls more environmentally sustainable. While meat and dairy products are incredibly resource intensive, the plant-forward meals have a significantly lower carbon footprint, meaning that the process that brought these ingredients to your plate is less carbon intensive, and sometimes water and energy intensive, than the standard dining hall dish. By using locally sourced, organic produce, we can directly support healthier communities and ecosystems!

So, what are the people saying?

The plant-forward dishes offered so far have been met with overwhelmingly positive receptions; an encouraging indicator that a desire for more healthful and environmentally conscious meals in the dining halls is strong. The sweet potato bar, the roasted romanesco with spaghetti squash, and the daikon radish cake have been highly rated as student favorites.

Three of Our Plant-Forward Recipes

Sweet Potato Bar

Sweet potato bar

The sweet potato bar offered a variety of toppings for both carnivores and vegans alike, including a flavorful vegan chickpea curry, crunchy vegan roasted chickpeas, vegan Mexican style ‘cheese’, avocado crema, and sweet maple bacon bits. A whopping 91.6% of students rated the dish at least a 7 out of 10, or higher.

  • 91.6% rated at least 7 of 10
  • Student comments:
    • Even more vegan…
      • “no bacon”, “vegan sour cream”, “more vegetables”
    • More!
      • “Just have it more often :)”, “served more often”, “the line was too long lol”
  • 97.2% want to see more plant-forward dishes on the menu
Roasted Romanesco

Roasted romanesco

The second featured dish contains delicate roasted romanesco broccoli with sauteed spaghetti squash and ‘caviar’ lentils in a creamy coconut and tomato curry sauce.

  • Majority (57.8%) would be willing to eat “most” or “all” meals plant-based
  • 82.1% rated at least 7 of 10
  • Student comments:
    • Already perfect…
      • “ITS PERFECT”, “honestly none best dining hall meal”, “nope doin a great job !”, “it’s so f*cking good!”, “i really enjoyed the dish”, “have more of it!”, “more of it pls”

Daikon radish cake

The daikon radish cake, an Asian fusion dish was served with edamame cilantro hummus and ponzu sauce.

Daikon radish cake
  • Majority (54.6%) would be willing to eat “most” or “all” meals plant-based
  • 79.6% rated at least 7 of 10
  • 98% would like to see more plant-forward dishes on the menu
  • Student comments:
    • “It was bomb! So good!!!”, “More plant forward dishes!”, “Be available more!”, “provide nutrition information”

Here are some nifty graphics that summarize the three dishes and their popularity:

This article, and its associated graphics, was written by Carbon Crew’s Food Team.

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