Learning opportunities outside of the classroom

This past week, I was invited to attend the Sodexo Sustainability Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Sodexo is our food service provider on campus and I work for them through the catering department as a server. Susan Matheson, the General Manager for Sodexo at Kalamazoo College, and I travelled by plane there and back for a few short days to learn about ways that the College can amp up its water reduction efforts and get everyone on the same page in their approach to sustainability on campus.

Going to this conference was a really unexpected learning opportunity. I have had the fortune of getting to know the administration over the past year or so and have definitely made an impression. (Not to toot my own horn). I say this because I think that the students’ ability to talk comfortably with the administration is one of the awesome things about K. In fact, our Dean of Students, Sarah Westfall, knows many students personally – including myself – and is always willing to meet with students to hear their concerns or ideas for the College. Susan, my manager at Sodexo, works closely with Dean Westfall and they thought that I would be a great candidate to go on this trip to St. Louis.

After a short plane ride from Detroit to St. Louis, we spent the first day going on a “Learning Journey” to see the process that food waste goes through after it has been scraped off of a plate. We visited the Energizer Headquarters in St. Louis and saw how their Sodexo kitchens avoid over-production of food and collect the food waste. After this, we visited St. Louis Composting where the food is transported to be made into a commercial compost product used by local farmers and landscapers. Next, we visited the beautiful Missouri Botanical Gardens and saw how they are taking measures to preserve water resources and using the food waste compost on their plant beds.

The next day we were hosted by Webster University and started the day listening to an awesome speaker named Chad Pregracke who founded the organization Living Lands and Seas. He has been working since the age of 17 to clean up the Mississippi River, which is a very daunting task. I would really love to get him to talk at K, because he is all about doing what you love and changing the world at the same time. He did note that he has faced many struggles in his attempts, but he said, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Susan gave a presentation about the sustainability efforts at Kalamazoo College that the food service has helped to implement, including creating the right size food portions, tray-less dining, modifying menus when food is not received well by the students, new waste receptacles that make acting sustainably easier, no bottled water on campus, food waste goes to a local farm to feed the animals, cooking oil is rendered for animal feed, vermicomposting in all of the Living and Learning Houses, communicating with food vendors to ask them to comply with the sustainability efforts of the campus, and the purchase of local dairy, produce, and proteins.

The biggest thing that I got out of going to this conference was the idea of culture change. It would be impossible to succeed in all of these efforts if the students and staff did not stand behind them and follow through. K is already notorious for its recycling success and its many groups devoted to sustainability efforts. However, there is more that can be done. Everyone needs to be on the same page to see these efforts come to positive change. By 2015, Sodexo hopes to divert 100% of food waste from landfills, but only if everyone can agree to make sustainable practices secondhand.

I had a really awesome time in St. Louis and I doubt that I would have been able to do something like this at any other college, because I was the only student at the Conference! It really shows how much the administration cares about the education of the students in and out of the classroom as well as the advancement of the College’s sustainability efforts as a student-led initiative.