As part of MIT’s updated climate action plan, known as “Fast Forward,” Institute leadership committed to establishing a set of quantitative goals in 2022 related to food, water, and waste systems that advance MIT’s commitment to climate. Moving beyond the impact of campus energy systems, these newly proposed goals take a holistic view of the drivers of climate change and set the stage for new frontiers of collaborative climate work. "With the release of ‘Fast Forward,’ the MIT Office of Sustainability is setting out to partner with campus groups to study and quantify the climate impact of our campus food, while deeply considering the social, cultural, economic, and health aspects of a sustainable food system,” explains Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager.
While “Fast Forward" is MIT’s first climate action plan to integrate the campus food system, the Division of Student Life (DSL) has long worked with dining vendors, MIT’s Office of Sustainability (MITOS), and other campus partners to advance a more sustainable, affordable, and equitable food system. Initiatives have ranged from increasing access to low-cost groceries on and around campus to sourcing sustainable coffee for campus cafes.
Even with the complexities of operating during the pandemic, efforts in this area accelerated with the launch of new partnerships, support for local food industries, and even a food-startup incubator in the Stratton Student Center (Building W20). “Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, MIT Dining has been focused on positive change — driven in part by student input, alterations to the food landscape, and our ongoing goal to support a more sustainable and equitable campus food system,” says Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining.
New vendors on campus focus on healthy food systems
For many, a fresh cup of coffee is a daily ritual. At MIT, that cup of coffee also offers an opportunity to make a more sustainable choice at the Forbes Family Café in the Stata Center (Building 32). The cafe now brews coffee by Dean’s Beans, a local roaster whose mission is to “prove that a for-profit business could create meaningful change through ethical business practices rooted in respect for the earth, the farmer, our co-workers, and the consumer.” The choice of Dean’s Beans — a certified B Corporation located in Orange, Massachusetts — as the new vendor in this space helps advance MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Businesses that achieve this certification meet rigorous social and environmental goals. “With choices like this, we’re taking big issues down to the campus level,” says Hayes. Dean’s Beans focuses on long-term producer relationships, organic shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee, a solar-powered roasting facility, and people-centered development programs. These practices contribute to healthier environments and habitats — benefiting farmers, soils, birds, pollinators, and more.
Another innovative new food concept for the MIT community can be found down the street in the Stratton Student Center. The Launchpad, a nonprofit food business incubator created in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), debuted this fall in the second-floor Lobdell Food Court. It offers the MIT community more variety and healthy food options while also “advancing CWK’s and MIT’s mutual goal to support diverse, local start-up food businesses and to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable food economy,” according to DSL. Work on the Launchpad began in 2018, bringing together the Student Center Dining Concepts Working Group, comprising students from the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, DormCon, house dining chairs, and other students interested in dining and dining staff from the MITOS and DSL. Their goal was to re-envision dining options available in Lobdell to support local, diverse, and sustainable menus. “We’ve been nurturing a partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen for years and are excited to partner with them on a project that re-imagines the relationship between campus and local food systems,” says Jones. “And, of course, the vegetarian arepas are a highlight,” she adds.
Local partnerships for sustainability
The impacts of Covid-19 on local food businesses quickly came into focus in early 2020. For the New England fishing industry, this impact was acute — with restaurant closures, event cancellations, and disruptions in the global supply chain, fisheries suddenly found a dearth of markets for their catch, undermining their source of income. One way to address this confluence of challenges was for fisheries to expand into new markets where they may have had limited knowledge or experience.
Enter MIT Sea Grant and MIT Dining. Supported in part by funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, MIT Sea Grant created the Covid-19 Rapid Response Program to develop new markets for local fisheries, including local food banks and direct sales to organizations including MIT. Though MIT Dining was stretched thin by the pandemic, the partnership offered a singular opportunity to support vital regional businesses and enhance menus in campus dining venues. “The stress level was unimaginable as more people were testing positive in the early days of the pandemic — it was the worst and most stressful time to do anything outside of what was completely necessary, and I get this phone call about chowder,” recalls Hayes. “Everyone is wearing two masks and standing six feet apart, but in about 15 seconds, I said to myself, ‘This is the exact time this needs to happen — in the middle of a pandemic when fishermen need support, families need support, people need support.’”
Shortly after getting the call, Hayes and MIT Dining hosted a tasting event featuring “Small Boats, Big Taste Haddock Chowder,” developed through MIT Sea Grant’s work with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which helped independent fishermen stay on the water during Covid-19. The tasting event also offered students a break to stop by and sample the chowder, which later debuted and continues to be served at MIT dining halls. For Hayes, one success of the partnership was the agility it demonstrated. “We don’t know what the next crisis is going to be, but these experiences will make us stronger to handle the next moment when people need the food system to work,” he says.
In addition to ready-made options for students, MIT Dining and partners have also been working to support students who prepare their own meals, collaborating with local businesses to provide students access to lower-cost and at-cost groceries and food products. The Food Security Action Team, convened by Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Well-being David Randall and DSL Executive Director for Administration Peter Cummings, is focused on taking action, tracking, and updating the community on food security efforts. These efforts have included collaborating with the Daily Table, a new nonprofit community grocer in Central Square. The store now accepts TechCASH and recently worked with the committee to host an interactive food tour for students.
Because food systems are so interdependent and partnerships are critical — on and off campus — Hayes says it’s important to continue to share and learn. “Sharing our stories is crucial because we can help strengthen networks of campuses, institutions, and businesses in New England to grow more sustainable food programs like these.”