Are Sodexo’s sustainability practices palatable?

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By: Janna Fitzgerald, Editor-in-Chief

Illinois Wesleyan’s mission statement states that “the University, through our policies, programs and practices is committed to diversity, social justice and environmental sustainability.” “I think it’s important that we as an institution practice what we teach in the classroom,” Professor of Environmental Studies Abigail Jahiel said. “We have geothermally-heated buildings and lots of other environmental initiatives, so why should Sodexo be an exception?”

In Argus student polling, 86.5 percent of students said they sometimes or always see Sodexo sustainability as issue. While the students that didn’t see Sodexo sustainability as an issue weren’t very vocal, the concerned students accused Sodexo of cutting corners when it comes to sustainability and wanted them to find more sustainable options for all the single-use items in the Dugout, go back to composting more than just food, be more transparent about food sources and buy more food locally, among other things.

Sodexo considers itself an environmentally-conscious company. They emphasize their RobecoSAM sustainability awards, their sustainable seafood initiatives and their cage-free eggs on their website. But the RobecoSAM awards are misleading, for the focus is on “industry-specific sustainability issues that have a link to long-term financial performance” according to Jacob Messina, the head of sustainability and investing research at RobecoSAM. Other than that, these initiatives are supported by evidence.

When it comes to food sources, Sodexo doesn’t seem to have a ton of knowledge. General Manager of Sodexo Operations Mike Welsh doesn’t know the sources of campus food. He has no direct contact with suppliers and mostly orders food online a couple of times a week. At corporate Sodexo, they insisted that the source information would be far too overwhelming to share with a student newspaper. This company that advertises their sustainability does not gather information about the amount of suppliers within 50 miles of our school, the amount that are certified organic, the amount that practice sustainable farming practices and the amount that practice ethical treatments of animals. They could only point to their local dairy initiative for local foods and only offered the opportunity to contact “representative farms.”

Why are such things important? Ken Nyscka, president and director of operations of Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, said buying locally is important because “I think we need to figure out how to bring the intellectual and social capital back to our rural areas. We need to invest in our local economy. You know, 33 percent of my revenue is going to the people that are producing my food. Why would I send that and export that out of my local economy? It’s ridiculous.”

On the more scientific side, “Climate change affects all of us, and food or the way we produce our food is a huge contributor to climate change,” Jahiel said. “Making fertilizers uses a lot of fossil fuels, and the fertilizers themselves cause further environmental harm on top of that. The actual farm machinery releases a lot of greenhouse gases. Every step from production to transportation to storage just increases the impact.”

As for sustainable farming practices, agriculture is a huge contributor to major environmental issues. “The midwestern United States is the largest contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus that runs from farm fields into the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico which creates the dead zone,” Professor of Biology Given Harper said.

“This past year, the dead zone was the largest size on record. Roughly 75 percent of our state is farmed. Illinois is suspected to contribute about 25 percent of the nutrients running off into the Mississippi River,” ISU Professor of Agriculture Robert Rhykerd said. “That’s not sustainable.”

Professor of Political Science James Simeone pointed out the impact on humans in the Bloomington-Normal area. “Bloomington gets its water from Evergreen Lake, which has run-off from both local farms and local septic tanks,” Simeone said. “The nitrogen levels in the Bloomington drinking water have, in the past, been high enough that they warned pregnant women about drinking it.”

“The big problem is the CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” Harper said. “These are either dairy, pigs or beef cattle. It’s many animals in a small area, and the animals produce an incredible amount of waste. If this gets into the water system, this is major eutrophication. It could kill fish and other organisms in the stream.” CAFOs are known for unethical treatment of animals. “There are issues like debeaking [of chickens], hormone feeding, confinement, farrowing crates, etc.,” Simeone said. “I think all this is widely practiced in conventional agriculture in central Illinois.”

According to Rhykerd, ethical treatment also makes financial sense. “If an animal is stressed, that reduces the quality of meat,” Rhykerd said. “If a dairy cow is stressed, they don’t produce as much milk.” Apart from the environmental impact of the farms, the waste that Sodexo produces on-campus also has an impact on the surrounding environment.

The waste problem particularly concerned President of the Student Sierra Coalition Dominic Gambaiani, so he researched it, along with several other students. This project implemented the waste bin lids currently in the Dugout and increased the correctly composted waste from 61.9 to 90.5 percent.
“We have the info that people want to [be environmentally sustainable],” Gambaiani said. “Obviously the student care.”

Composting contamination used to be real problem for IWU, for when they took it out to Illinois State University’s (ISU) Farm to compost, the contamination would start blowing around. “The ISU Farms had a lot of contamination that was basically blowing around, off their farm and onto others’ farms, which was causing them a great deal of consternation,” Director of Government and Community Relations Carl Teichman said. “ISU Farms eventually decided they were no longer going to accept it.”

ISU Farms is an E.P.A. inspected site and would get cited for too much trash blowing around. “The idea was great, but practically, it was really difficult,” Rhykerd said. Today, there is significantly less contamination, and the amount of waste that the university composts has increased over the past few years. “In 2015-16, we composted about 38.2 tons of waste,” Teichman said. “In 2016-17, we composted about 42.3 tons of waste. I would like to increase that by as much as we possibly can.”

Gambaiani is appalled by the amount of single-use items that go directly to the landfill. He emphasized the plastic, from straws to silverware to to-go boxes. “A couple of years ago they offered a reusable container at the Dugout,” Gambaiani said. “It’s a little green plastic container. It’s $5, and you’re allowed to buy it on Munch Money, I think. You just take it, and they’ll fill it up for you at either Tommy’s or Dugout. But they’re not acknowledging it; they’re not advertising it. Nobody knows about it.”

“The long-term goal is to get Sodexo to make whatever they use in the Dugout compostable. That’s what we’d love to get to,” Teichman said. “There are corn-based utensils that we can hopefully get them to use at some point down the road. It’s like anything. You’re shifting cultures to a certain degree on this. We’re just getting Sodexo and a whole lot of other people to shift cultures just a little bit.”

Gambaiani said the bowls and plates from the Dugout used to be compostable, but “they had a contract with a company that had a digester, which is basically just a giant compost bin that’s mechanized that uses a lot of heat and pressure to break down stuff like the plates and the bowls in the dugout that are actually biodegradable. They just need a lot of heat and pressure that you don’t necessarily get out in the ISU Farm fields. When the company made the switch and didn’t renew this contract, IWU decided as an institution to keep using these kinds of bowls and plates to continue to support that sector of the industry, supporting companies that innovate and build biodegradable designs for their single-use items. That’s why we still have the bowls and plates that we have right now, but now they just go to the landfill.”

The Bloomington-Normal landfill will be closing soon. According to The Pantagraph, it’s estimated to close in the first quarter of 2018. “The waste-haulers are initially saying it’s not going to have any impact, cause they don’t want to scare anyone. It’s gonna have an impact,” Teichman said. “When you have to haul our trash from here up to Pontiac or some other place, that introduces an additional expense to those waste-haulers. They’re going to have to charge us back that, at some point down the road. It’s just a matter of when.”
So a more sustainable solution is necessary.

What would IWU professors like to see Sodexo do to increase sustainability on campus?

“They should do less of a meat-based diet, and they should educate students on how a more plant-based diet is not only better for them but better for the planet,” Jahiel said. “They should reduce their use of plastics and other non-compostable items. They should support sustainable agriculture and locally source more of their food. They should have vegetarian and vegan options that do not solely consist of pasta and salad.”
“Sodexo could make an effort to work with local organic farmers,” Simeone said.

“They argue that they make an effort to be sustainable when they use ‘local’ farms like Prairie Farms (out of Edwardsville). This is better than Walmart, which gets a lot of its milk from a Texas firm that still uses bovine growth hormone, but there are a lot of farmers with Legacy of the Land Coop here in Bloomington or the Stewards of the Land Coop out of Fairbury which are both local and sustainable in their practices, and I would like to see commitment from Sodexo to work with them.”

For the local farming cause, “IWU has been gifted a lot of farmland over the years,” Simeone said. “At one point ten years ago it owned 28 farms totaling over over 6300 acres.” Perhaps IWU could use this farmland to produce our food in a more sustainable way.

“We need to come together as a campus and show them this is our culture,” Gambaiani said. “We want to do this.”