NUI Galway: The Model University for Sustainability

Experiences at Universities are riddled with a variety of firsts. Students’ first time living on their own, their first lecture, and for many their first time being responsible for what they eat and how they dispose of it. With the responsibility of providing for themselves, students also face the issue of food waste. With opportunities like a meal plan, students have an overwhelming amount of options allowing them to fill their plate only to throw out what they did not eat with no second guesses. Food and other waste management has become a priority for many individuals and organizations, especially in Ireland. Newfound procedures for waste management and other sustainability practices has become ingrained in the lives of businesses, especially universities. The National University of Ireland (NUI) works closely with companies like ​Master Chefs​ and ​Sodexo​ to combat the issue of food waste and create a more sustainable campus.

Chefs at Moffetts preparing food for the day. Photo by Megan Stewart

Food waste on university campuses is a topic personally relevant to me being a student myself at James Madison University (JMU). It is here I took notice of how wasteful students can be and wondered how JMU could improve their sustainability. I decided to interview the companies that work closely with NUI Galway and see how they practice sustainability. My first interview was conducted via email with Chris Towers, the Marketing Manager at Master Chefs. Master Chefs is a diverse catering operation that is fully committed to creating a sustainable practice. The company has opened a few restaurants on the NUI campus one of which I visited called Moffetts. Chris joined the Master Chefs team ten months ago but he had been working marketing roles within the food industry for many years. His impressive track record prior to Master Chefs included working for Loam, the “first independent restaurant in Ireland to be awarded a three-star Food Made Good rating by the UK based on Sustainable Restaurants Association.” Towers states he was drawn to Master Chefs because of their “commitment to sustainability, desire to innovate, and push boundaries to offer what no one else in the food sector does.”

Since becoming a zero waste business, Master Chefs has created a variety of green initiatives within NUI culture. The company combats the issue of food waste at their NUI facilities by creating a variety of dishes from leftover ingredients, making cultured yogurt, using a variety of pulps for creating dishes, and composting all food scraps. Staff and students are now more conscientious and mindful of the impact they are making on the world. “Just last year we served a mammoth 25,000 hot beverages in reusable cups at NUI Galway,” stated Towers. “We have incentivized our customers to bring their own cups to outlets and make the transition away from single-use cups.”

Sustainability has become a hot topic and younger generations are becoming more mindful in what they consume, where it comes from, and how it is produced. Because of this, Master Chefs strives to be as transparent as possible so their consumers (the students) can make informed decisions about their lifestyle. Up until recently students have not been able to have great involvement with sustainability initiatives aside from bringing reusable cups. Luckily come September 2019, Towers stated that Master Chefs is looking to work closely with a variety of relevant clubs on campus to “help achieve their ambition to become one of the greenest and community focused campuses.”

Photo by Megan Stewart

On the Master Chefs website, they state that they “lead by example.” Towers elaborated on this by stating “we set the example that small acts when multiplied by millions can transform the world.” This can be done by educating and encouraging customers and hopefully lead them to make small incremental changes in their lives to make a greater impact in the grand scheme of things.

Sodexo is the provider and dining service for several upstanding universities including NUI. I conducted an interview, via email, with Maria McNeela who is the Hospitality Chef at NUI. Sodexo has promoted sustainability within dining facilities at NUI in a variety of ways. This included changing overall consumable to comparable packaging, purchasing sustainable food produce (i.e. fish), only ordering fresh produce in season, providing reusable utensils, recycling, and using coffee grounds for gardening purposes. McNeela stressed that sustainability does not just stop there as the university has ways to combat food waste specifically in their dining halls. They do this by focusing on giving students smaller portions, working to predict the number of students coming to dine, purchasing only what they are in a position to sell daily, cooking small batches, and reusing food for other purchases.

Photo by Megan Stewart

Sodexo implements a variety of positive changes within the university, but I was curious as to how the students play a role. On the Sodexo website, they state that they “focus on improving the student experience through integrated services to promote quality of life.” I asked McNeela to explain this further by discussing how they ensure positive food interactions. She elaborated on this stating that the dining services provide a large salad bar with vegan and gluten-free options, a variety of dining options based on preferences, and a Mindful Programme which informs students on what exactly is in the food they consume and healthier alternatives. McNeela iterated that students are the driving force behind the sustainability practices and stated, “students have reacted very positively to sustainability changes, [them] and corporate hospitality clients demand sustainable practices.”

Since students have become more aware of their environment, bottled water and disposable coffee cup sales have decreased as students have switched out these options with reusable bottles. The food waste area has also been redesigned for students. The bins are color-coded with pictures of what refuse goes in each bin with the caption “know which bin to put it in.” This design is supposed to make students stop and think before they dispose of their garbage.

The green initiatives taken on by NUI Galway are nothing short of amazing. It is companies like Master Chefs and Sodexo that are inspiring positive environmental change among universities. I found it most interesting that these practices allow students to become eco-friendly in the comfort of their own university, making them more aware of their surroundings. These positive habits will hopefully follow the students as they progress in life after school. I am hopeful that universities like these will set an example for others not only in Ireland but globally.

Megan Stewart