R.I. higher education institutions take lead on sustainable food practices

Tray-free dining, student vegetable gardens and buying from local growers reduces waste and carbon emissions while strengthening access to healthy food.

April 19, 2023 2:00 am

Trayless dining cuts down on food waste at Bryant University. (Photo by Pamela Murray/Bryant University)

When Plant City, a growing Providence-based vegetarian restaurant, opened its fifth location at Bryant University in February 2023, it attracted widespread attention across campus.  The university’s partnership with Plant City is greater than simply preparing tasty plant-based food for our students. Its mission is focused on health, sustainability, and giving back to the local community. Similar stories have started echoing in the dining halls of universities and colleges across Rhode Island. 

Universities can play an important role in educating the students towards a sustainable and equitable food system for themselves and for the future generations. Climate change is threatening the quality of food supplies. Sustainable food program initiatives that go beyond promoting sustainable food practices are the need of the hour. They include reducing food waste, increasing access to healthy and locally sourced food options, and cage-free eggs. 

Universities across the state have taken a variety of steps to implement sustainable food practices. Brown University is committed to sourcing 29% of raw material for student dining halls from within 150 miles of the campus. University of Rhode Island goes a step further by procuring vegetables from students growing it on campus. Such programs are an excellent way to support organic farming and inculcate sustainable food habits in students. These initiatives further promote economic growth for small businesses and farmers of Rhode Island, lower greenhouse emissions, protects natural resources, and reduce carbon footprints. 

Presently, 45% of the American population is suffering from at least one chronic condition. The Rhode Island Department of Health found a strong correlation between chronic health conditions and decreased productivity at both school and in the workplace. Access to sustainable food options at the school level will encourage healthier lifestyle habits in youth thereby reducing the burden on local hospitals. Access only is not sufficient.  Enhanced disclosure of ingredients used to prepare meals is also important. Dining halls at Roger William University lists each ingredient used to prepare meals. This helps in making students aware of the inputs, people, and processes behind each of the meals.  

table of rfesh produce for students to get free vegetables
Excess food from the University of Rhode Island’s research farms is given away during the Free Farmers Market on the Quad in the months of September and October. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

Although several school campuses across Rhode Island have some form of food sustainability programs in place, a lot of work needs to be done to increase the penetration of such programs. Lack of budget, time constraints and changing priorities of school administrators are roadblocks in the implementation of sustainable programs. Universities need to collaborate and learn from successful strategies implemented by their peers. For example, Bryant and Roger Williams use tray-free dining to eliminate avoidable waste and Providence College is following suit. Similarly, both Roger Williams University and Providence College have partnered with Food Recovery Network to donate food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Such steps can be easily replicated by other institutions across the state. 

The ultimate success of university sustainability programs largely depends on student engagement and commitment. Universities should engage students in sustainability efforts and provide them with an opportunity to incorporate sustainability practices in their lifestyles. University of Rhode Island has done an exemplary job by hosting a free farmers market in their campus during the fall season where students fill their bags with free fruits and vegetables harvested earlier at URI farms. Such initiatives encourage students to make it a permanent part of their life.

Recognition has proven to be an effective motivator. Universities can award badges and extra credits to students involved in sustainability efforts, giving them a sense of achievement. One such example will be to involve students in the procuring raw materials for campus dining. Once they understand the importance of organic and locally sourced ingredients, they probably won’t mind paying a few extra bucks as they are getting to build a perspective and story behind their meals.

Adverse weather events, increasing carbon footprint, and global warming are clear signs that our planet earth is under immense pressure. This calls for our educational institutions to take a holistic approach to ensure that students can meet the upcoming challenges including revitalizing ocean waters, reversing global warming, and protecting biodiversity.


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Sonal Kumar, Ph.D.
Sonal Kumar, Ph.D.

Sonal Kumar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Finance Department at Bryant University. Her research interests include sustainability across all sectors as well as gender and racial/ethnic diversity in corporations, financial inequality and corporate social responsibility. Her teaching interests include financial management, investment analysis, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions and behavioral finance. Dr. Kumar received her Ph.D. in Corporate Finance from Concordia University, in Montreal, Quebec, in Canada.