SYDNEY: Our ungreen greens

Last night, I sat down with friends to a dinner of homemade bowls of lentil soup and wilted rainbow chard. We kicked off our boots and listened to the fizzing of the radiator turning on and off. It felt like approaching winter in the best of ways, the steam rising from the bowls, the magnification of indoor warmth contrasting with the cold past the windows. For dessert, we broiled pears and the whole off-campus apartment smelled of that fruity spiciness that wafts from the season itself, not a jar of cloves or ginger or cinnamon. All the abundance of the season lay before me on the table.

The next morning, back in the dining hall, I faced rows of pale cantaloupe and even paler pineapple, out of place and out of season, on a November morning. Energy intensively brought to our plates from distant warmer climates; their pale flesh seemed to shiver in the Connecticut chill.

This past Monday, University President Peter Salovey released the Sustainability Strategic Plan for 2013-2016, evaluating the achievements and shortcomings of the past three-year program and launching new goals. The plan targets four main areas for advancement in sustainability: energy and greenhouse gas emissions, natural and built environment, materials management and food and well-being.

The past three years saw some significant improvements; for example, a 16 percent reduction in campus greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, in light of past progress, Yale has raised the stakes in many areas for the next three years — the plan now aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent from 2013 levels and introduce a pilot program that provides common room furniture to dorms to reduce end of year waste.

In spite of these advances, however, the new plan has mystifyingly lowered standards for dining sustainability.

The 2010 Strategic Plan set a goal for “45 percent sustainable procurement” of food in the dining halls and aimed for 50 percent local produce “during seasonal availability.” By the 2013 deadline, they had fallen a bit short — reaching 37 percent sustainable procurement. But rather than push forward and reset the goal at 45 percent or even higher, the new Strategic Plan lowers the initial goal to the already attained 37 percent sustainably sourced food. Furthermore, it identifies four categories: local, eco-sensitive, humane, or fair, as qualifiers for “sustainability.”

This loose definition leads to lax and ambiguous requirements. The plan bundles together a range of admirable efforts to present sustainability as a singular front. This allows gains in some areas to cover for faults in others. Every category is held to a different standard, which means that Yale Dining can make the easiest changes — such as buying fair trade coffee and tea, a relatively easy and cheap option — while leaving harder ones — such as a commitment to seasonal vegetables and fruits — unchanged. These are very different types of sustainability. By grouping all of these together, one sustainably performing category can pick up slack for another. This results in a lower overall standard, since not all four categories will be meeting the 37 percent goal.

One positive exception to this trend is the goal to increase plant-based foods available by 15 percent. Plants are inherently more sustainable because they need less energy input to grow than meat, which requires grain and significantly more water. But the old plan set more of these types of targets for specific food groups.

In doing so, the previous plan enforced a more uniform and ambitious standard, specifying goals of 45 percent sustainable procurement; 50 percent of animal protein sustainable; 50 percent vegetarian-fed, grass-raised beef; and a 50 percent increase in locally preserved products. The new plan eliminates these breakdowns and lumps together sustainability into one 37 percent figure. The new plan emphasizes important but sustainability unrelated health issues like sodium content, a red herring that distracts from the lowered standards for regulating the environmental impact of food purchased by Yale Dining.

Ultimately, by emphasizing health and bundling together four categories of sustainability, the report distracts from efforts toward sustainable sourcing of meats and produce. As anyone who has attended the Wooster Square Saturday farmers’ market can attest, Connecticut has an abundance of locally grown produce to offer even well into the winter. Yale should not assume that local and sustainable resources have been maximally utilized and that our sustainability capacity has topped off at 37 percent.

Caroline Sydney is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at caroline.sydney@yale.edu.

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