A chat with Dining Services director Christine Schwartz

Christine Schwartz joined Bates Dining Services in 1995 and has been director since 2003. In August 2008, she spoke with staff writer Doug Hubley about Dining Services operations and the $2.5 million gift that made possible the Bates Contemplates Food initiative. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

DH: How does Bates define “local, natural, organic”?

Christine Schwartz: We take pride in saying that we define local as the state of Maine. We think it’s a very powerful thing. In terms of natural and organic, natural is the way you grow something and it’s actually the same as organic growing, except that these products are not certified. Organics are certified products. There’s a process that you have to go through for your farm to be certified organic and it’s quite costly and time-consuming — it takes years to get it done.

DH:What kind of relationship does Bates have with local growers?

CS: We’ve got a pretty good relationship with our local growers. My purchaser, Ken Smith, actually grew up on his family’s farm, Smith Farm in Greene, Maine. Many of our relationships we have cultivated through his relationships and family contacts. Additionally, many of the people who work for me grew up on farms locally, know local farmers.

So, it’s not just that Dining Services has a relationship with the local farmers, but actually the people who are here and work here who have those relationships. So it goes much deeper.

DH:What are your criteria for dealing with local growers?

CS: We like to know them. You can’t just have a backyard farm and we’ll take product from you. We like to know that you’re an established farm, we like to know your growing practices and we like to develop a purchasing history with you.

People call me quite often from the local community here and say, “We have an abundance of tomatoes. Can you take them?” I can’t, really, because I don’t know exactly where they’re coming from. If you’re an established farm, that more than likely means that you’re carrying some liability insurance, you’re dealing with more than one purveyor and have a growing history. A backyard farmer doesn’t have that same type of development.

Actually, we quite often go out to the farms, take a look at what’s going on, talk to them. We have them bring in their product, discuss delivery, what they can and cannot accommodate, what we can and cannot accommodate. Certainly how they might bill — we don’t do cash off the loading dock.

But usually, even with established farmers, we try to get out once a year to look at their farms. It’s great to see what they have going on.

The most dramatic thing for me was last year when we went to see Gabe ’02 and Amanda Waterhouse Clark ’02 at their Cold Spring Ranch, in North New Portland. We saw two beef carcasses hanging, one that was grain-fed and one naturally grass-fed. And I knew that natural was much leaner, but I guess it didn’t really register until I saw them hanging together. It was just incredible to think how different the meat can look according to what the animal is fed. It’s really quite interesting.

DH:In terms of both the new Commons building itself and choices you make in Dining Services, how is your operation helping sustainability at Bates?

CS: The building itself, clearly, is a highly efficient envelope. It’s self-ventilating, which reduces the use of electricity — the only air conditioning is in the cooking areas, because the equipment gives off so much heat. The equipment is EnergyStar rated. The lighting system is, in many places, motion-sensitive.

We recycle the “gray water” [dishwashing rinse water] on the scrim line and the dish machine — we’ve always done that. None of our food waste goes into the waste drain. We don’t have any grinders [garbage disposals] on the pot machine, the dish machine or any sinks. The waste is collected and sent to a pig farmer. The water fixtures are all low-flow.

All of our paper products are unbleached so they can be composted. We do that through Ricker Farms in Lisbon, and [Bates grounds supervisor] Bill Bergevin uses Ricker’s mulch. We minimize the use of paper products. I really try to avoid putting paper out whenever possible.

We’ve been looking at the way that we transport and present water on campus, so that in the building you can have pitchers of water instead of bottles.

We reduced packaging. When we spec a product, we try to get the brand with the least packaging so that when we bring it in, we’re reducing waste.

And Baker Commodities is buying our used cooking oil now. They are buying it back from us when we used to have to pay them to come take it away, and some of it is made into biodiesel. It is incredible to think about — people wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole and now they’re buying it from you. I think it’s just great. It’s, for me, a sense of where we’re all going.

DH:Being green saves green — money, that is.

CS: People think that being green is more expensive, when in reality, if you balance it all out, it’s not. For instance, we buy compostable plates. Are they a little more expensive than the Chinet which is noncompostable? Sure.

But that incremental increase is so insignificant in the scope of things. If you think about a plate that you can’t compost, so it goes into the waste stream, so now you have to pay the tipping fee to get rid of this plate. And then, where are you going to store used plates, and what are you doing to the environment, instead of paying those few cents on the front end to save it on the back end? People just see the upfront costs and don’t think about the larger costs in terms of the full cycle of that plate.

If you look at our recycling, there’s nothing magical in there. There’re some metal bins, some plastic bins, a person working it — you would have to have an employee in a trash room just as we have working the recycling room. It’s a wash.

You just need to think about how you’re doing it. I think people just equate “organic” with more expensive, which usually is the case, so they equate “green” with more expensive — when it is not the case.

DH:Because of increased storage space in the new building, you’ve been able to reduce deliveries, which saves money and cuts your carbon footprint.

CS: It also allows me more flexibility. So now we’re thinking, Great, we’re not going to get Wednesday deliveries, so what can the purchasing staff now do on Wednesdays that could enhance the operation? Before, they were getting deliveries every day, so they were just focused on that.

DH:Your job is very much about the business and the systems of food. Where does the pleasure of food come in?

CS: For us, in the food service business, it’s that instant gratification you get when you do an event and the event is really good.

Ultimately, it’s watching what happens when the customer approaches a serving station. What happens? Is the customer happy, sad? Are they going, “Oh wow — this looks great.” Can you see the expression on their face?

And then there’s what happens afterwards. Is the meal actually eaten or is it disposed of? We have someone who watches in the dish room, and tells us what came back. Sometimes your most popular choices, if you’re not careful with how they’re put together — that’s why we have standardized recipes — can become dogs.

So you have to look at why. Is it a new item? Is it something that would appeal to the football team, but they’re not here? You have to really analyze why something is a dog, and sometimes it’s obvious and other times it’s not quite so obvious.

DH:What does the long tradition of community dining at Bates mean to you personally?

CS: It really is this sense — and I very much enjoy this — of openness with the students. They feel comfortable coming to us and having conversations. We have an open-door policy. As I sit in my office, it’s very rare that somebody’s not coming by — this happens with students all the time. I have students who will come in and just chat about something, want to say hi, just want to let me know they are back on campus.

At least two or three times during a meal period, I try to get out there and just circulate around and see what’s going on. I try to have my meetings out in the dining hall whenever possible. And certainly, I always try to sit out there when I have lunch so that I can be with my employees.

DH:A $2.5 million gift is supporting your sourcing of local, natural and organic products. What was response when you first learned of this?

CS: The gift has been very, very exciting. I love telling colleagues at other institutions that we got this.

I was really honored. This is my organization, my employees. We began to talk about it and realized, wow, what other schools celebrate food? We’re an auxiliary service. We’re here to support academic life. That’s the reality of our business, so we don’t expect to be celebrated — we expect to do a good job and to keep our customers happy. So it’s very exciting.

It allows us to do things, some subtle, some not so subtle, that we couldn’t do in the past. The three major items the gift supports, all from Maine, are the purchase of spelt bagels that Beth George ’85 makes in Yarmouth; natural grass-fed beef from Cold Spring Ranch, run by Gabe Clark ’02 and Amanda Waterhouse-Clark ’02; and the change in our water to certified-organic, from Poland Spring to Summit Springs, in Harrison. It’s a natural spring.

We also want to decrease the amount of bottled water used, as opposed to bulk water. We’d like to get to the point that for every event in this facility, we use pitchers of water. Some people don’t like that. So it’s the balance between what your customer wants and what’s environmentally the sound thing to do, which is sort of the fine line we always walk.

Our staff values what we’re doing. They like being leaders in the industry. They like when people celebrate food. It’s so exciting for them because they’re being recognized in a way that they have never been recognized. They feel valued. They take pride in it.

I’m just lucky to work in an institution where I have a great group of people to work with. They’re your most important resource. You can bring in the best food, you can spend a ton of money on food, but if that food’s not being prepared right, if people aren’t caring about it, you get nothing. So the heart of all this is the people that work in Dining Services.

DH:What haven’t we talked about?

CS: One thing that’s near and dear to our hearts is that Bates is committed to being a self-operated dining service, which allows us to provide the services and the level of support that we have to the campus community.

If decisions were made by a corporate office that knows nothing about the school, nothing about the people we’re serving, and doesn’t know who’s available for local producers, Dining Services would look totally different. Ultimately, contract feeders are there to make money. But a self-op is there to take care of the customers. So, why pay someone to do something you can do yourself while saving the money?

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