Food Food Systems

Area Overview

A variety of environmental and human health topics are directly linked to moving food from farms to plates, including land use and quality; pesticide, fertilizer and antibiotic use; water quality; fossil fuel use and climate impacts; consumer nutrition; and waste management. Purdue has implemented numerous initiatives that apply sustainability concepts to its food services operation.

With food purchases totaling nearly $13 million in fiscal year 2008/09, and about 3.5 million meals served annually, Purdue’s food sourcing practices have a tremendous environmental impact. The working definition of "local" used by the university is "food purchased from Indiana and the four bordering states."* While this simplified the process for tracking purchasing information, the campus plans to reevaluate the definition to standardize it with other higher education campuses and benchmarking programs. Under the current definition, Purdue and its food distributor, Piazza Produce, developed a process whereby non-local food products are automatically replaced by local products when the pricing is the same for both. This has raised the percentage locally sourced fresh produce purchases from 3 percent in 2008 to 5 percent in 2009.

The food purchases from the 2013-2014 year rose to $16 million, and those purchases went towards feeding 3.9 million meals over the course of the year. Along with an increase in the amount of food served, the dollars spent on locally sourced fresh produce increased by 20% this past year. Products from the Purdue Farm and FCAP (Student Farm) were served in the dining courts, PMU Sagamore Room, and the PMU booth at the Farmers Market. 

Sustainable food purchasing efforts at Purdue have focused on local products, rather than organics, because student demand is lower and prices are higher for organics. However, the campus has made organic options available through the popular Urban Market, an upscale convenience store in the Purdue Memorial Union, which carries 35 percent organic produce.

Operating an enterprise that creates 3.9 million meals annually requires a great deal of energy and water. The University Residences Dining Services department has a policy to purchase Energy Star equipment for all products that are eligible for the EnergyStar rating. All new snack machines use LED lights, saving 50 percent of the energy used by a standard snack machine. Purdue started to save energy by implementing a lights out campaign on Coca-Cola beverage machines during the summer of 2010. To save water, pre-rinse spray valves were installed on all commercial kitchen sinks. By reducing water use, these devices also reduce water heating energy and sewage treatment costs.

Producing this quantity of meals also generates large volumes of food waste. The university has created many university programs and partnerships in this area. Within University Residences Dining Services, all post-consumer food waste is scraped from plates, pulped on site, and sent to the West Lafayette Wastewater Treatment Utility. This material is used to fuel an anaerobic digester, which generates electricity to run the treatment process. Twenty tons of food waste is diverted from landfill disposal on average per month due to this partnership, saving Purdue roughly ten thousand dollars annually.

Decreasing the amount of food waste created by diners to start with is an ongoing goal at Purdue. The university saw an 18 percent reduction in post-consumer food waste in a pilot tray-less dining program, which compels students to take smaller portions and return for additional servings.

Several other campus initiatives divert surplus food to better uses. The university sends extra food to a local food bank, which has diverted about six tons to date. All meat and bone scraps are sent to a company that renders the material into animal feed, cosmetics, and other goods. Used cooking oil is collected and sent to a company that produces biofuels.

Another byproduct of food service is packaging waste. Two major source reduction initiatives at Purdue are designed to encourage guests to use fewer resources. At the University Residences dining outlets, napkins are placed on tables so that guests take napkins only as needed, rather than grabbing a handful at the beginning of food service. Reusable mugs, bottles and bags are sold in the student stores and given away free to freshmen to reduce plastic waste. Students can refill bottles at a filtered water station at the Urban Market in the Purdue Memorial Union.

Other packaging recycling efforts include recycling all plastic shrink-wrap on pallets, which equals about seven green bins per day. Used pallets are either exchanged with the vendor or recycled, and damaged pallets are sent to a company to be turned into mulch. An opportunity exists to implement a composting program for carry out and disposable tableware items, all of which are made of compostable materials except a Styrofoam soup bowl.

Coca-Cola hybrid delivery truck

Several additional green operations initiatives reduce the environmental impact of Purdue's food services. Food Stores, which is responsible for food procurement, warehousing and distribution, evaluated its delivery schedule to campus customers and was able to reduce fuel expenses by 30 percent over the previous year. A contract with Coca-Cola requires that deliveries be made with a hybrid truck. Finally, a green cleaning program produces the sanitary conditions required in foodservice while reducing chemical use to protect the health and safety of custodial and food service workers, Purdue’s dining guests, and the environment.


Purdue will track the following metrics to assess its food systems performance over time.

Purchasing: 2014 Short Term Goals

  1. Organize a workgroup to create a university definition of "local food" in alignment with benchmarking standards.

Purchasing: 2025 Long Term Goals

  1. Evaluate using research crops that are currently plowed into the ground in meals, paying careful attention to the cost and safety aspect of using these crops as food.
  2. Pilot (nearly) phosphorus free dishwasher cleaning solution in food services applications and evaluate the cost impacts.

Energy and water use: 2014 Short Term Goals

  1. Investigate the development of energy efficiency guidelines by-product category for equipment replacements.
  2. Investigate the development of water efficiency guidelines by-product category for equipment replacements. This could be included in a sustainable purchasing policy.

Energy and water use: 2025 Long Term Goals

  1. Conduct a lighting usage study and needs assessment to identify opportunities to retrofit over lit areas, provide appropriate and well-controlled lighting, and reduce unnecessary energy use while allowing for areas with special lighting applications.
  2. Expand the hybrid delivery truck program adopted by Coca-Cola to other vendors, if and when available.

Waste management: 2014 Short Term Goals

  1. Conduct a needs assessment for evaluating the effectiveness and usage of existing recycling and organic waste bins to plan for future expansion.

Waste management: 2025 Long Term Goals

  1. Develop a composting program for compostable products and packaging, possibly through a partnership with Soilmaker, to divert this waste from landfill disposal and create a useful product for Purdue farms and community gardens.
  2. Work collaboratively with corporate food vendor partners operating on campus to encourage adoption of sustainability efforts that minimize packaging and waste.
  3. Develop a pre-consumer food waste program to divert this waste from landfill disposal.

Outreach: 2014 Short Term Goals

  1. Develop a student education campaign to convey the value of sustainability and healthy foods programs at the dining commons.
  2. Expand the on campus Farmers Market and publicize its presence and food selection.

Outreach: 2025 Long Term Goals

  1. Partner with the Horticultural Department to develop a collaborative themed demonstration garden for food plants and herbs.
  2. Encourage portion control to decrease food waste and promote healthfulness by educating guests on ideal portion sizes and servings through signage and displays. Develop additional outreach mechanisms and incentives, such as smaller plates or tray less days.
  3. Grow herbs for use in dining services╒ meals by developing a partnership between Housing and Food Services and the Master Gardeners.
  4. Establish a Housing and Food Services/academic workgroup to identify opportunities for collaboration and cooperative programs.
  5. Develop a partnership with the College of Agriculture to develop collaborative opportunities to support academics and generate student involvement in food systems issues.
  6. Continue to encourage healthy choices in eating by providing educational materials up front for each choice, such as nutritional information.


*The university will review its definition of "local," taking other higher education campuses and benchmarking programs into consideration. This metric cannot be tracked until "local" is defined by the workgroup as noted in item #1 under "Purchasing 2014 Short Term Goals" above.

Strategic Plan