Sustainability at The Culinary Institute of America

Menus of Change Kitchen

The Culinary Institute of America is not only one of the top schools in the world for culinary and pastry arts but also an educational space devoted to teaching the positive and negative impacts we have on our food cycle. At the CIA, faculty, chefs, and professors are beginning to put more of an emphasis on the college’s own food cycle and sustainability practices in and out of the kitchens. With the recent stream of publicity released about the traumatic amount of food waste in America and the generational shift to plant-based convenience food in the U.S., the CIA is beginning to shift how it prepares future food professionals.

A few areas that the CIA is working to change on campus include monitoring electrical energy usage, sourcing local ingredients, tightening food-ordering practices, and educating students more thoroughly on the importance of sustainability in the food industry. The campus-wide Sustainability Committee generates much of the inspiration and support for the campus initiatives that take place at the college. This group of faculty, administrators, students, chefs, and professors develop solutions to improve the CIA’s industry practices throughout the college’s food cycle. They focus primarily on structuring initiatives to ensure sustainable success on campus. Through the efforts of individual leaders or groups of leaders on this committee, the CIA is making a difference by uniting education, sustainable food systems, and the food industry.

Simultaneously, the Applied Food Studies bachelor’s degree program offered at the CIA brings an overwhelming amount of knowledge and activism to current sustainability-related issues  in the community. This program continues to grow a new and distinct group of food professionals who focus primarily on how people interact with the food cycle and how the food industry can efficiently make it more sustainable economically, environmentally, and socially. In classes like food policy, ecology of food, and ancient foods, students cover a range of topics outside of the restaurant world that equip them to change the culinary world.

The students who have an interest in sustainability but are taking their degrees in culinary science, food business, or hospitality are welcome to participate in the new Hudson Valley Farm to Table concentration. This concentration gives them an edge when handling matters of sustainable food systems in the industry. Classes in the concentration look closely at the important relationship culinarians have with producers, coworkers, and guests. Classes take multiple trips to local farms and small businesses and discuss various principles and effects associated with sustainability. These first-hand interactions that students taking the Farm to Table Concentration have are very similar to the ones Applied Food Studies scholars are analyzing.

Classes take multiple trips to local farms

One interactive project the Applied Food Studies program will be involved with soon is in  collaboration with the Menus of Change® Kitchen that has recently been opened on campus. This kitchen uses the research principles that our Menus of Change partners, Stanford Department of Health and Harvard University, collected on the effectiveness of food reutilization. The Statler Foundation generously sponsored this CIA research kitchen to encourage collaborative efforts around sustainable food and food repurposing education. The team involved in this kitchen strives to create delicious dishes from food trim and kitchen class leftovers that can be served to students for dinner at a low cost. This next semester, the kitchen will also begin working with groups and departments in and out of the CIA that want to learn more about how they can reduce food waste on a small and large scale.

Thanks to the Menus of Change Kitchen, much of the food the institution used to donate or compost can now be repurposed safely on campus.

Thanks to the Menus of Change Kitchen, much of the food the institution used to donate or compost can now be repurposed safely on campus

However, even with this incredible outlet for leftover food, there always seems to be more. Thanks to the Food Recovery Program on campus though, any leftover, ready-to-eat food that cannot be utilized on campus goes to the Hudson Valley Food Bank, which distributes tons of food to hundreds of food banks across the region. All kitchen and bakeshop classes have to do is package the food in provided containers when the food is at a safe temperature, bring them down to the CIA storeroom, where it is checked and froze until the food bank’s truck comes to pick it up. According to Chef Bobby Perillo, the lead chef of this initiative, the CIA donated approximately 22,000 pounds of food in 2019.

Even with all of this food recovered, guess what? There’s more. In the past year though, The Culinary Institute of America has implemented a three-bin waste system in all kitchen classes. With this new system being continually honed, CIA’s waste has been cleaner (without contamination) than it has been in years and have saved thousands of pounds of compost from being diverted to landfill.

While practicing the three-bin waste system in kitchen classes, the mandatory academic class students take—Food Systems—has been great in reinforcing practices on campus and has answered any questions students might have about it. Along with educating the students on CIA’s waste system, the Food Systems faculty also teach students about the basic food cycle principles, the definition of sustainability and how it applies to the food industry, as well as agriculture practices. This class became mandatory only a few years ago and is now considered a crucial class for students pursuing bachelor or associate degrees.

Students who are not pursuing a bachelor’s degree but are still interested in sustainable food systems have many opportunities to learn and actively engage in sustainability through various programs. Students have the opportunity to garden on the campus’s rooftop garden, and in its community  and teaching gardens with Applied Food Studies professors who are always happy to share their knowledge.

Menus of Change Kitchen

Everyone at CIA is welcomed to purchase local products at the CIA Pop-Up Market using their allotted meal points to support Hudson Valley producers. Students also have the option to volunteer weekly and do cooking demos for the Poughkeepsie Farm Project CSA members at the farm.

CIA Pop-Up Market

The CIA’s guiding belief is that “Food is Life.” Sustainable food practices will determine what kind of lives we and future generations will have. With evidence of climate change, water shortages, and food insecurity becoming more and more prevalent every day, the future food professionals of the world need to be prepared. Drastic changes in everyone’s food supply is projected to happen in less than a century. How can the food industry reduce the impact this change is bound to have on everyone? This is exactly what the professors, chefs, and students at the CIA are preparing for.

By Katy Cassady

Katy Cassady is a student in the bachelor’s degree program in applied food studies at the CIA’s New York campus. She’s from Buffalo, MN.