McKayFarmDiningAward-1.jpg Unity College
McKay manager Chris Bond (left) and summer intern Stephanie Martinez-Alfonso harvest lettuce for sale at the farm store. Unity College Dining uses over 3,600 pounds of produce from McKay Farm and Research Center during the academic year.

Unity College tops sustainability challenge

The small Maine school won gold by emphasizing local procurement and environmentally sound waste management.

Tiny (around 700 students) Unity College won big at the recent NACUFS National Conference when it was named the grand-prize winner in the group’s 2017 Sustainability Awards competition. Perhaps that’s not so much of a stretch as might at first seem as the Unity, Maine-based school bills itself as “America’s Environmental College” with an institutional focus on sustainability science that includes 17 environmentally focused majors in its liberal arts curriculum.

The campus dining program is a strong part of that institutional mission, and sources its ingredients from local producers as much as possible and disposes of its waste in the most environmentally friendly ways possible. At the heart of the local sourcing initiative is the dining program’s partnership with McKay Farm & Research Center, a 20-acre working farm that encompasses a 9-acre field, five greenhouses and one hoop house and serves both as a source of fresh produce for the school kitchens and as an academic resource where classes are held and where students can gain hands-on experience in various agricultural pursuits and tasks.

McKay supplies more than 3,600 pounds of produce annually to Unity Dining Services. The campus dining program also has relationships with a couple of local food hubs that aggregate the crops grown by a number of local growers.

In addition to produce, the kitchen also gets some locally produced meats, dairy and seafood and all eggs used in the breakfast program come from locally raised, cage-free hens. In total, about 28 percent of the products purchased by Unity Dining currently come from local sources.

Meanwhile, waste from the dining program has, for about the past year, been diverted to an anaerobic digester operated by AgriCycle Energy that is located at a nearby dairy farm, where it is converted into energy. Used cooking oil is recycled into biodiesel by Portland-based Maine Standard Biofuels.

Of course, the standard growing season in Maine is fairly short compared with regions farther south, but the greenhouses and hoop house help extend that into the late winter to give the Unity kitchens fresh product to work with for most of the year.

“With the greenhouses, we can have fresh greens going pretty much the whole year,” offers Lorey Duprey, director of dining. The availability of fresh vegetables is helped along by an on-campus root cellar where late-season root vegetables can be stored.

The kitchen also does some cook to inventory of some basic items, though that effort is currently limited by lack of freezer storage space, “but we’re working on those issues,” Duprey says. The bulk production utilizing seasonal fresh produce includes a ketchup, “McKay-chup,” that is then served in the campus dining outlets and even bottled for retail sale locally.

Unity’s main café, Wyman Commons, has a Mongolian grill, a regular grill, a pasta station, a comfort food entrée station as well as daily soups and rotating ethnic dishes like sushi and curries. Highlights include an allergen-free station serving dishes without any gluten, eggs, dairy, nuts or shellfish; Belgian waffle and ice cream stations; and a fresh food bar where students can create their own sandwiches—and toast them on the station’s panini grills if they wish—or design their own pizzas.

“We have little 7-inch pizzas doughs out there as well as sauce and cheese and different toppings, and then they pass it to one of our cooks who puts it in the pizza oven,” Duprey explains.

Wyman is all you care to eat but has a takeout option using a reusable container that a student purchases, fills with food to take away and then returns later for either a new one if they want to take out again, or for a chip that serves as a voucher for a container at a future date.

The takeout container program “is very popular,” Duprey says, both in Wyman and at the retail dining outlet in the Student Center, and is yet another tool in the sustainability effort as it eliminates the use of disposable takeout containers. In addition, all napkins used at the school are made from recycled paper and dispensers release them one at a time to reduce waste.

“We do everything in there that you would do in your typical little pizza place,” Duprey explains. “We try to keep it on the healthier side with salads, sandwiches and daily specials,” though she concedes that some students prefer the fried foods that are also available at the location. The retail outlet also offers meal exchanges on the meal plan.

The Student Center is also open for extended hours into the late evening and offers games and live entertainment. A small sundries retail extension of the Student Center is planned for this year to serve as a campus c-store.

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