Two URI students eating in the Mainfare dining hall at Hope Commons

For the fifth year in a row, Hope Commons dining facility has been recognized by the National Association of College & University Food Services for its environmentally friendly practices.

When we’re serving 1.1 million meals a year, our sustainability initiatives add up and are important in helping us tax the environment less. It’s the right thing to do.

The latest sustainability effort is the sale of waste vegetable oil to Newport Biodiesel for conversion to biofuel. “We’ve recycled our oils for close to eight years, but we’ve never been sure what the vendors used it for,” said Michael McCullough, associate administrator of URI Dining Services. “Now, we hope the oil we sell to Newport Biodiesel will come full circle and end up in our gas pumps to power our vehicles.”

URI Dining Services provides 1.1 million meals per year in two dining halls, a retail venue and a catering operation. “Our sustainability initiatives add up and are important in helping us tax the environment less. It’s the right thing to do,” McCullough said. Although the fee Newport Biodiesel pays for the oil is small, McCullough hopes that one day it will provide scholarships to students interested in alternative fuels or sustainable business operations.

Another major focus of URI Dining Services is the buy-local movement. Their primary vendor for produce is Rhode Island’s own Roch’s Fresh Foods. Roch’s has been working closely with local farmers to streamline the process of acquiring local produce from multiple locations in the state. More than 30 other vendors from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut provide most other items on the menu. But you can’t get much more local than right here on campus, where students are growing herbs, cherry tomatoes, and salad greens used in the dining halls.

Trays in the dining halls have long been a thing of the past, with some unexpected environmental benefits. “We’re not using soap and water or labor to clean them, and it’s saving on food costs and waste, because with trays, people tend to load up on food that often gets thrown away,” McCullough said. “Going trayless is a hot-button issue in food service. So hot, in fact, Harvard called to ask how we did it. We just took them away, and people embraced the idea immediately and never asked for them back.”

Other Dining Services’ initiatives include eliminating polystyrene take-out containers, using paper products made from recycled materials, and selecting vendors with a sustainable component to their operations. And at the end of each semester, all perishable foods are donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

When the University’s oldest dining hall, Butterfield, is renovated next year, the sustainability rating for URI Dining Services will only get better.