Green dorm food

UC Davis transformed a student cafeteria into a sustainable eating haven

UC Davis students ponder the selection at the Segundo Dining Commons.

UC Davis students ponder the selection at the Segundo Dining Commons.


Segundo Dining Commons at UC Davis isn’t your parents’ dorm cafeteria. There are no endless lines of doleful students watching sullenly as clumps of starchy swill are slopped onto their plates. There are no tepid patties of deep-fried meat of indeterminate origin or prefab wilted lettuce and salad dressings dating from the Mesozoic Era.

The goal here is to create the greenest place to gobble greens anywhere. That isn’t necessarily a piece of cake when you’re serving an on-campus student population of 4,600 three to four meals a day, 240 days of the year. University staff and faculty can eat there, too. So can the public. Hard to knock an all-you-can-eat dinner for $12.

Airy and high-ceilinged, the fan-shaped dining hall, whose fresh food and ambience is popular with students, is 43,205 square feet—three times the old facility which was, pretty much your standard, old-fashioned dorm cafeteria.

Rather than a long, cafeterialike line where already-cooked food is dispensed, Segundo has food stations scattered throughout the building, which seats nearly 900, almost triple the old facility. One station, The Blue Onion, offers vegan specialties—its surfaces have never been touched by animal products. Pacific Fusion is Mongolian barbecue. Saucy!—oven-baked pizza. Tomato Street Grill—burgers. Sautéed food at Go Live! The salad bar is the largest in the city of Davis. Gluten-free and kosher options are plentiful.

The menu reflects that some 15 percent of students say they are vegan or vegetarian. Vegan or vegetarian fare—romesco, lemon tahini tofu, choley, pasta puttanesca—abound. The university bakery supplies much of the bread. Pizza crusts are made with eco-friendly flour. French fries are steamed. To discourage waste, students are offered free tastes before loading their plate with a dish they may discover later they don’t like.

“It’s a great environment,” says Brenan Connolly, the general manager for the university’s dining program. “The whole idea of this facility is to bring the cooking out to the students and make fresh products in front of them.”

Twinned with an insistence on nutritional fare is reducing waste—food, water, energy, chemicals. Segundo uses low-flow toilets. Its dish room has low-flow nozzles. Apex Ecolab chemicals are the cleaning agents of choice.

It takes water, energy and chemicals to wash cafeteria trays. That’s why there aren’t any at Segundo. During a pilot program in 2007, the amount of waste collected on “Trayless Tuesdays” was 50 percent less than on days with trays. Students were eating about the same amount, there was just less waste, recalls Connolly, who has been at the campus 30 years.

Savings from ditching the trays helped expand from a few months to year-round the university’s ability to purchase locally grown and organic food.

“When you compare the locally grown food we serve to our students to processed foods, the taste is exceptionally better,” says Danielle Lee, sustainability manager for University Dining Services. “Our food doesn’t take seven or eight days to reach the consumer. It’s two or three days.”

A key part of the $23 million Segundo project was creation of a Culinary Support Center, a central production facility that serves Segundo and the campus’ two other dining halls. Sauces and soups are made there—in 100-gallon kettles. The local produce arrives there. Meat gets cooked. Vegetables chopped.

Some 70 percent of the components of what is cooked at the different stations in Segundo are prepared in the support center. Batch cooking—trying to match supply with current student demand—reduces leftovers and waste.

Any food scraps from the support center are collected and composted. So is anything left on student plates. Paper towels, cardboard, cans and boxes also are composted. Trash bags are biodegradable.

“We’ve diverted this waste from landfills and turned it into nutrient-rich compost,” says Lee. “A lot of organic growers are purchasing this compost, so we’re creating a cycle. Instead of food being wasted, it gets reused, which also reduces greenhouse gases.”

Segundo’s model of varied cooking stations—“platform dining,” it’s called—is on the increase. There are different hybrids, Connolly says, but UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara have similar programs.

“A philosophy of sustainability also keeps our costs down. And that keeps the costs down for our residents here on campus,” Connolly says.