Local spinach, cage-free eggs, and humanely raised beef are just a few of the claims
made on dining hall signage across the Claremont Colleges. While these appear
to be indicators of how sustainable our dining halls are, they are not always as
straightforward as they may appear—and students do not just have regulations, claims, and sourcing at one dining hall to keep straight, but rather a web of standards across the 5Cs.
Miller CM ’16 has faced these challenges in understanding the sourcing and products in the dining halls.
“When I cook for myself, I pay very close
attention to where my meat comes from and buy only products when I am familiar
with and approve of conditions in which it was raised and slaughtered,” Miller said. “I
intended to keep doing so in college … but it’s been challenging to get
consistent information about where exactly everything comes from. In practice,
I’ve ended up becoming vegetarian because it’s so tough to keep everything
In addition to questions about meat production, the label “cage-free” on eggs also conceals complications. All dining halls at the Claremont Colleges provide cage-free eggs, but eggs at the dining halls meet different standards. Café Bon Appetit, the catering company that runs Collins Dining Hall at Claremont McKenna College and McConnell Dining Hall at Pitzer College, reports on its website that all shell
eggs—eggs purchased as whole eggs—are cage-free. According to the
general manager of Hoch-Shananan Dining Hall at Harvey Mudd College, Miguel Ruvalcaba, all eggs used there
However, it is important to note that “cage-free” does not necessarily mean that hens are roaming through wide-open green spaces. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “cage-free” on their website as a standard ensuring “the flock was
able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to
food and fresh water during their production cycle.”
While this does not mean the hens are allowed outside, cage-free does offer an alternative to the battery cages common for hens. The Humane Society explains on their website
that when battery cages are used, each hen is typically allowed less space to live in than a
standard sheet of paper.
Malott Commons at Scripps College, shell eggs, egg whites, and hardboiled eggs have cage-free
origins and are also certified by the United Egg Producers, a third-party organization. This means that the
producers of these eggs abide by a specific set of guidelines that include animal-handling conduct guidelines and space requirements for nests and perches in cage-free
used in the Pomona College dining halls are cage-free by general USDA standards.
In addition to upholding this standard, the Pomona dining halls explicitly cite the source of their eggs as Wilcox Family Farms in Roy, Wash.
The topic of sourcing arises often in discussions of sustainability, typically in
relation to “local” food. All the dining halls at the 5Cs offer what they term
“local” produce, but each defines the term slightly differently.
Sodexo, the catering
company that runs Malott and Hoch-Shanahan, uses the loosest definition of local found across the 5Cs: The company’s website states, “All
our distributors are required by contract to carry local produce, which we
define as coming from the same state or region.”
Pomona dining halls define local on their website as coming from
within a 200-mile radius and “ideally from an independently-owned small family
Similarly, Café Bon
Appetit includes source type and physical distance in the sourcing
standards explained on its website: “We require our chefs to purchase
at least 20 percent of their ingredients from small (under $5 million in
sales), owner-operated farms and ranches located within 150 miles of their
kitchens.” These approaches think of local as more than a way to reduce
the miles food travels for freshness or conservation of energy’s sake, and go
on to actively support small producers.
Although moving to support local producers may be appealing, it is not always a simple transition. Cindy Bennington, the general manager
of McConnell, explained that while
moving to smaller producers might support sustainability, they are often unable to consistently supply the volume required by the dining halls. Bennington estimated that McConnell serves 11,000 meals a week, which means that in many cases, small farms do not have
the consistency and volume of supply that is required.
Commons outlined another challenge to sourcing locally: consumer demand. “The chefs on campus use ingredients from local sources as much as possible,” a flier on local sourcing reads. “Some fruits and vegetables simply do not grow in our area. When there is high
demand for these items that cannot be sourced locally, we purchase items from
as close as possible.”
explanation makes it clear that while the dining hall is concerned with the
locality of its products, consumer demand is still a primary concern and
can be a major hurdle to increasing sustainable practices.
“We’re trying to educate, not tell people what to eat,” Collins General Manager Pam Franco said about offering sustainable options.
While the dining halls can adopt sustainable practices, they remain bound by consumer preferences. Dining halls still operate as businesses, so some change can only come if students vote with their forks—if they change eating practices to favor more sustainable food.
Dittes HM ’15, who has worked with Ruvalcaba on a food rescue program and waste audit, said, “The dining hall is definitely improving if the students want it
This article is part of a series on dining hall standards and sustainable food. The second installment will examine sustainable food student movements and organizations.