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Originally published Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle-area colleges are turning their tables over to the local-sustainable ethic

From the small Seattle University and Bastyr College to the sprawling University of Washington campus, food services are adopting a more sustainable approach — offering more fresh, local dishes and even composting what's left behind.

BEFORE I TELL you about what three local universities are doing to address the issue of sustainability in food service, let's have lunch.

Come along with me, figuratively speaking, to the Cherry Street Market at the Seattle University student union.

We'll have a salad with roasted squash, wheat berries and local greens, assembled from the fully stocked salad bar (which also features kimchi). Stews include Hungarian pork and a totally credible lamb vindaloo served with naan. Grilled Lummi Island sockeye salmon is 10 bucks. If you're on the go, grab a ham and fig sandwich with Beecher's Flagship cheese.

Yes, I am insanely jealous of today's college students and their awesome dining-hall food. And at the end of the meal, everything left on my tray, including the plastic silverware, cups and napkins, went into the compost bins. When I was in college in the mid-'90s, the dining-hall food consisted of all-you-can-eat commodity slop, most of which went straight to the landfill. I wasn't surprised that Northwest college food services are leaders in sustainability, but I was floored by how good the food has become. (And that they were serving kimchi.)

I shouldn't have been surprised, according to Buzz Hofford of Bon Appétit Management Co., which has served Seattle U for more than a decade. "Trying to find the best-tasting products around, it initially really drove us toward buying fresh, buying locally, because that's where the flavor is."

How local can he go? "During the summer, about 80 percent of our produce is bought locally," Hofford says. Over the whole year, that drops to 40 percent. Their beef comes from Country Natural Beef (hormone- and antibiotic-free); chicken is similarly local and antibiotic-free.

Everything is antibiotic-free on the menu at Bastyr University, the college of naturopathic medicine in Kenmore, because the cafeteria is 100 percent vegetarian (and more than 65 percent organic).

At the University of Washington, Michael Meyering of Housing and Food Services is moving in the meatless direction. "We're trying to get more into plant proteins," he says. "I think plant proteins are a lot more sustainable than nonplant proteins." Sure, everyone knows that a cow has a larger carbon footprint than tempeh. But can a college dining hall really produce good-tasting vegetarian and vegan food?

"We've got some really good recipes," Meyering says. "Ten years ago, eew, it was horrible. This is actually really good."

So I had lunch at 8, the cafeteria at McMahon Hall. Bypassing the burgers, I went for the Indian-spiced spinach and potato stew with chickpeas and rice, and a side of steamed local asparagus. (Price: about $12.50.) Meyering was right: It was hearty, savory and satisfying.

Just as I was patting myself on the back for ordering the vegan lunch, I was one-upped by senior Joanna Wright, who brought a salad consisting of produce grown on campus at the UW Urban Farm. "I feel really lucky to be at UW right now," Wright says. "The UW Urban Farm is kind of an outdoor classroom. It's a place where students can come and learn hands-on about sustainable urban agriculture."

The Urban Farm is a student project that doesn't supply the dining halls — yet. Wright is also a member of Students Expressing Environmental Dedication (SEED), which worked with the food service to bring composting to all the dining halls and is now helping bring composting to the residence-hall floors so the dregs of that midnight burrito don't have to go to the landfill.

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Yes, you can't talk about college food without diving into the compost heap. That's a good thing, and not just for environmental reasons.

One thing that hasn't changed since I was in college: Students are, often by necessity, cheapskates. They'd like their food to be organic, local and sustainable, but not if it costs $27.

The food service now sends a majority of its waste, more than 500 tons a year, to a compost facility in Everett. Not bad for a program that just started in 2004. Composting not only turns trash into fertilizer; it also saves money. (Seattle U and Bastyr also have comprehensive composting programs.) That's part of how these colleges are able to offer high-quality food with an environmental pedigree at prices comparable (adjusted for inflation) to what I was paying for industrial food in 1993.

I don't mean to make it sound like everything is deliciously carbon-neutral at the colleges. UW still relies on Tyson's factory-farmed chicken (though they buy cage-free eggs from Wilcox Farms in Roy). And Wright, a vegetarian, would like to see more meatless main dishes.

The only food growing on campus at Seattle U is an herb garden. Most food-service produce, even when local, comes from large-scale farms.

But students who bring up these issues are likely to find a sympathetic ear, not the cold shoulder of The Man. Hofford is a longtime member of Slow Food USA. And Meyering seemed insulted when I asked how the food service responds to student demands. "We're trying to stay ahead of the students," he said. "We should do it without being pushed."

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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