Edamame Potstickers, Boom Boom Sauce, and Sumac Dusted Cauliflower, along with the rest of Harvard University Dining Services’ signature dishes, rotate through each dining hall across Harvard’s campus. Every day, students load their plates with classic HUDS foods, leave their trays on the conveyor belt, and go about their days. The leftovers disappear into a void and fresh food appears for the next meal, veiling HUDS’ large-scale processes of food procurement, preparation, and disposal.
Provisioning the undergraduate dining halls, graduate school cafeterias, campus cafes, and Crimson Catering, HUDS serves 5 million meals a year. A dynamic team of 650 HUDS staff members work to serve 22,000 meals every single day.
So, where does HUDS food come from, and where does it end up? This piece dives into the nitty-gritty of HUDS’ operation, revealing the motivating factors behind their choices. From sourcing produce locally, to composting every scrap during food preparation, all the way to recycling the grease from fryers, HUDS has buckled down on integrating sustainability into their everyday practices. HUDS has also kickstarted programming such as the Food Literacy Project and the Harvard Food Systems Initiative, as well as fulfilling the Sustainable and Healthful Food Standards written by Harvard’s Office for Sustainability.
Before joining the Food Literacy Project as a fellow, Cory B. Beizer ’24 didn’t know anything about HUDS sustainability practices. “That was one of the reasons I applied. I was curious where our food came from and what happened after we put our trays on the conveyor belt,” they say.
Breda R. Page Violette ’24, another fellow, says she’s realized that “there's a lack of mindfulness, maybe, between students and their food that I think could be strengthened.”
HUDS’ food sourcing and disposal processes are so streamlined that they become practically hidden. If you’ve ever been curious about the food you ladle onto your plate each day, this article will take you on a journey of the HUDS food system — from crop to compost.
Every Harvard student is familiar with the notorious HUDS entrée “Red’s Best Catch” — typically a white fish filet, or a battered cod. Few, however, know the story behind Harvard’s innovative “Catch of the Week” program, which other universities and schools along the coast have since adopted. Pioneered in 2015 with Red’s Best, HUDS commits to buying a certain volume of fish (normally around 900 pounds per week) at a fixed price through the provider. HUDS receives whatever the fisherman have caught in the past two or so days, ensuring no fish go to waste, while providing the freshest possible catch.
“We actually allow the supply to dictate the demand,” explains Martin T. Breslin, HUDS’ director for culinary operations.
Before HUDS developed this program with Jared S. Auerbach, founder and CEO of Red’s Best, HUDS operated the way a restaurant would: writing up a menu in advance and placing demand on a particular kind of fish, whether or not it could be met.
Auerbach describes this former approach as a demand-driven supply chain, which worked “backwards towards the ocean.” This created misalignments of supply and demand to the detriment of not only the fishermen, but also the consumer, who would receive less fresh fish at a higher price if it was in high demand.
Auerbach calls the shift to a supply-driven demand approach “a bit of a leap of faith at the time.”
Auerbach adds, “Now that we’re doing it, it seems like such an obviously intelligent way to move fish in a sustainable way.”
Ultimately, Harvard’s piloting of this program has helped increase the sustainability of the local fleet, according to Auerbach. “I can’t understate the impact that our relationship with them has on our business and the fishermen,” he says.
Through informational posters and slides in each dining hall, the “Catch of the Week” program encourages students to learn the story behind the person who caught their fish.
“It becomes easy to try cusk when it’s connected to a real human being in your community who went out into the ocean and harvested it for you,” Auerbach says. The program has allowed students to try “almost everything in the ocean,” he says, made possible through HUDS’ flexible menu.
Student opinion on HUDS’ dishes, whether actively shared or implicitly provided through foods they choose, works hand in hand with HUDS’ effort to include sustainably-sourced food in the menus it designs.
According to HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin, all of the texts they receive through the Text and Tell program are, in fact, read and integrated into HUDS’ choices, alongside information gathered from student surveys, conversations in the dining halls, and meetings with student organizations.
Based on this information, the culinary team calculates the “acceptability factor” of each menu item, a statistic iterated over time to represent how popular a dish is among students, Breslin says.
HUDS also tracks broader trends among student preferences. For example, Breslin says that students are preferring plant-forward dishes, fresh vegetables, and fish over beef. “You can find ways to develop menus that support sustainability goals that are also exceedingly popular, by helping people meet food in new ways,” Martin adds. (This is, of course, easiest when student preferences align with environmentally-friendly foods.)
In addition to the types of food served, Breslin and his team also run complex calculations to figure out how much food to make. “Once we serve the menu, we calculate what’s left, what isn’t cooked, and we do the math,” Breslin says. Then, they input the data into a menu maintenance system, so that the next time a specific item is on the menu, HUDS can estimate how much should be prepared to minimize waste.
Still, HUDS’ calculation-based predictions of food quantity are limited in their accuracy. After every meal, some food inevitably remains. This food can be divided into two categories: food waste (think: the slightly-too-mushy sweet potato pushed to the corner of your plate, or unused potato peels) and leftover food, which is prepared and cooked, but never leaves the kitchen.
HUDS’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. All of Harvard’s dining halls have been certified, since 2009, by the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit organization which incentivizes food providers to prioritize sustainability. The GRA certifies providers with a number of stars based on an elaborate points system; for example, paper and cardboard recycling is required and is worth ten points, and hair/beard net recycling incurs an additional point. All of Harvard’s dining halls have been awarded two or three stars out of four, making Harvard a “leader” in the food sustainability field, according to Michael J. Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. “Harvard was very, very early,” he says.
In addition to consulting with food-serving entities on areas for sustainability improvement, the GRA also holds providers accountable by conducting intensive audits of sustainability systems. “In addition to making sure the [composting or recycling] bin’s there, we will call the waste hauler to make sure they actually have a contract, not just some old bin sitting there,” Oshman says. The GRA communicates with Harvard’s different vendors to make sure that recycled, composted, and rescued outputs end up where they need to go.
One element of HUDS’ waste practices is repurposing its used oil by sending it to Baker Commodities, Inc., a grease collection service, according to Robert K. Leandro, HUDS Director of Operations and Facilities. Baker Commodities renews used cooking oil to create lubricants, animal feed, and biofuels.
Additionally, Harvard Campus Services reports that Harvard outputs more than 23 tons of compost per week. Save that Stuff, Harvard’s waste management vendor since 2018, takes the compost to a facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where a bioseparator filters out nonorganic material to be recycled or thrown out.
The organic material is then transformed into something known as an “Engineered Bioslurry,” which gets converted into renewable biogas via anaerobic digestion. Biogas can be used industrially — which, according to the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy, makes this process preferable to composting food scraps into soil.
In the case of HUDS, its wastewater treatment plant, Greater Lawrence Sanitary District, treats the “Engineered Bioslurry” generated from compost, in turn fueling the facility itself. Excess energy is sold back into the grid.
Amy Y. Li ’20 visited Harvard’s waste management facility herself and wrote about her experience for the University’s Office for Sustainability. She writes that when HUDS composts, it is “helping ensure that the food scraps on [their] plate[s] don’t go to waste but instead are transformed into a valuable energy source.”
In the belly of Annenberg, three evenings a week, a handful of volunteers ladle a starch, a protein, and a green into compostable containers. The food these students package — leftovers from Annenberg’s dinner — is frozen and picked up by the nonprofit Food for Free, which distributes the meals to food-insecure populations throughout the Boston area. Called Heat-n-Eats, this program is run by the Food Literacy Project and has repurposed 22,000 pounds of prepared food since September 2022.
“A lot of food insecure people are also time-constrained people,” explains Samuel J. McDermott, senior manager of Heat-n-Eats at Food for Free during the 2022-23 school year. “So having a meal that at the end of the day, they can go back to and microwave in three minutes — it’s just incredibly impactful for our clients.”
Aside from Food for Free, HUDS also tries to alleviate food insecurity in its own neighborhood of Harvard Square, partnering with two student-run homeless shelters — Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y — to serve leftover food to the shelters’ guests. Every evening after dinner is served, volunteers from Y2Y pick up food from Annenberg Hall, and volunteers from HSHS pick up food from Kirkland House. During spring break or other times when dining hall services are limited, HUDS works to make sure that the shelters can pick up food from its one or two open dining halls.
McDermott emphasizes the importance of rescuing prepared food because of how much waste has already been produced in the process of cooking the food. “It’s the most essential point of the supply chain to rescue it,” McDermott explains. “You’ve already had all the waste around produce spoilage from time of harvest all the way up to time of getting that food into the chef’s fridge. And to waste it after it’s already been spiced and cooked, it’s just a shame.”
Food for Free also raises students’ awareness about where their waste goes. “To be able to go back into the dining halls and actually repurpose the things that were put out for us,” says Lexi G. Williams ’26, a frequent participant in Heat-n-Eats, “And making them be useful for someone else, I think is really cool.”
For Page Violette, another valuable aspect of Heat-n-Eats lies in increasing student awareness that these programs for reducing food waste exist in the first place. Before becoming a Food Literacy Project fellow, she thought, “maybe it was getting composted, or a little bit of it was getting donated here and there, but most students like myself didn’t realize until we realized that there’s actually a more rigorous system for food waste.”
In the kitchen of the Harvard Scho0l of Public Health’s Environmental Health Department, a sticker on the fridge reads “WWWWD?” — what would Walter Willett do? Having collaborated with professor of epidemiology and nutrition Walter C. Willett for more than 30 years, HUDS followed through on that question.
For a long time Willet envisioned creating a food system which not only yields good-tasting and nutritious food, but also provides its consumers with “life skills” around healthy eating practices. This year, he and Smitha Haneef, HUDS’ managing director, co-established the Harvard Food Systems Initiative to “place a sharper focus on food systems in our community,” according to the HFSI website.
“We want this more than to be just a passive sort of ingestion experience, but also a learning experience, too,” Willett says. Willet hopes that through HFSI’s programming such as forums and panels, they will raise awareness of each person’s role in improving sustainability within the food system as well.
Beyond HUDS’ internal initiatives, they also partner with other groups to further sustainability efforts. The Office for Sustainability assembled a multidisciplinary faculty Food Standards Committee to create a set of Sustainable and Healthful Food Standards, published in 2018. The standards, among other priorities, emphasize reducing wasted food and enhancing food literacy — and importantly, provide concrete expectations regarding best practices. “Having the priorities is so helpful, because sustainability can be everything and anything,” says David J. Havelick, assistant director of the Office for Sustainability.
The standards also require that vendors log their purchases in one database, which centralized HUDS’ reporting infrastructure. This advancement allowed Harvard to be one of the first to sign onto the Cool Food Pledge in 2019, which cemented their commitment to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030. This data repository also enabled vendors to begin modeling different ways to reach climate-related goals.
In this sense, Havelick sees Harvard as a “living laboratory” to test the efficacy and impact of sustainability practices. Though it’s come a long way since Willett’s aspirations 30 years ago, this experimental “laboratory” work is still in progress.
HUDS has additional plans to make their food systems more sustainable. Haneef aspires for HUDS to create menus that honor the biodiversity of local produce. As for how she envisions the ideal HUDS system, “making it much more circular and regenerative, is one that I personally am looking forward to.”
“And the humble effort has started with first having and hosting the farmers on campus,” Haneef says, referring to when HUDS invited 14 local farmers to campus last year. At the event, Haneef learned more about the farmers’ priorities and how HUDS might “connect closely with their produce.”
“It’s not going to be a quick turnaround time,” Haneef says. “I felt like it was a great start.”
— Magazine writer Ellie S. Klibaner-Schiff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellieklibschiff.
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