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Food Systems

Introduction: Stating that food is critical to life is obvious, but underscoring the importance of food to quality lives and to sustainability is essential, especially on a college campus where learning takes place in all settings both in and out of the classroom.  Food, of course, provides nourishment, but it is much more than that whenFood_plot.jpg talking about sustainability. It touches all facets of the complex Earth system (Figure 1) and occupies a unique place in our lives as a cultural symbol.

(CC Image of urban community garden by Joshjrowe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Food on campuses including UWO, like food in society in general is highly industrialized, unhealthy in part, and derived in a system that is mostly unsustainable with large inputs of fossil fuels and connections to land degradation and pollution, among other maladies.[1] Figure 2 depicts the heavy hand that fossil fuels have in food in the United States. For every food calorie we consume, 10 calories of fossil fuel based energy is also consumed in the production, distribution and disposal of that food.

Since the previous plan: Through its declaration as a Fair Trade campus and other Dining Services decisions, UW Oshkosh has made great strides in  reducing its environmental impact and has demonstrated a commitment to social responsibility. Successes include implementing meatless options at all food locations in Blackhawk Commons throughout the week. Many of the foods served on campus are declared to be of local origin -- from Wisconsin and neighboring states. With the opening of the university’s dry anaerobic biodigester on the west side of campus, Dining Services now diverts most of its organic waste from landfills. The digester produces biogas for electricity generation and thermal heat. At present the digester generates approximately 8% of UWO's electricity needs. The digestate is turned into compost.

Blackhawk Commons also features cage free whole eggs, local milk, organic cheese and coffee, and Fair
Perma_Urban.jpg Trade coffee. Eliminating food trays from dining reduced food waste by 17 percent.

(CC Image (left) of urban farming/gardening by Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Energy Star rated electrical equipment has reduced energy use by 20 percent and a trash compactor reduces the frequency of waste pick up, thereby reducing embodied energy and tipping fees in downstream operations. The 24 rooftop solar thermal panels produce more than 1,800 therms to heat water for the kitchen. Reeve Union vendors sell Fair Trade coffee and chocolate in addition to handcrafts and jewelry.

The current food service provider, Sodexo, is an important partner in developing sustainable food systems on campus. Its recent announcement that it has partnered with the “Real Food Challenge” to advance sustainable food systems on campuses across the country is welcomed news at UWO. The Real Food Challenge is a program initiated by students that calls for 20% real food by 2020 in member campuses. UWO has begun the internal process to establish an RFC chapter.

As with purchasing, the upstream and downstream operations of dining services will be increasingly evaluated for embodied energy and lifecycle costs.

Food Systems Goals

(Sustainability plan citations)


(A picturesque yet desolate field outside Oshkosh, WI where corn, soy, or wheat is normally grown for commodity markets or local animal production, not for direct local human consumption)

[1] These issues are complex and interconnected. For a range of materials that cover the industrial nature of food, health aspects, and food systems sustainability in general,  see: Goody 1997, Moss 2013, Pfeiffer 2006, Pollan 2001, Pollan 2007a, Schecter et al. 2010, Schlosser 2002, and Warner 2013.

by Spanbauer, Bradley R last modified Apr 17, 2014 03:07 PM

Teaching Resources CTA

Campus Sustainability Plan




Fair Trade