Andover’s Search for Sustainable Dining Solutions Amidst COVID-19

Students and faculty alike have had to make several adjustments to their typical Andover experience during Cohort One’s mandatory two-week quarantine period. For students, meals are being delivered to dormitories twice a day. Paresky Commons and Allison Guerette, Campus Sustainability Coordinator, are working on finding practical food packaging solutions that would both minimize the spread of COVID-19 on-campus and keep the dining program as sustainable as possible.

Paresky tried offering meals in compostable containers for faculty at the beginning of the Fall Term, but the compostable containers did not maintain the food temperature or hold their structure long enough for the meal delivery and pickup programs. For the quarantine of Cohort One, the school decided to switch to single-use plastic containers to ensure convenience for students and faculty. 

“The school still wanted the dining program to be as sustainable as it could safely be, so they agreed to give compostable packaging a try. However, the compostable containers proved to be unable to store food for the required time, they got soggy, so the school had to switch to single-use plastic for the initial quarantine. As you can imagine, that produces huge amounts of waste,” wrote Shreya Bajaj ’23, member of the Phillips Academy Sustainability Coalition (PASC).

After the switch to single-use plastic containers, Paresky and Guerette started looking into the possibility of bringing back reusable containers. According to Guerette, while recyclable containers are being used where possible, global supply shortages have made them a less accessible option. Instead, Guerrette hopes to implement a reusable container program. 

“We are working to offer a reusable container program, and ensuring safety was a primary concern. The reusable containers will go through the same cleaning and sanitization process as all the bowls, pans, and utensils that are already being used for preparing food. They will be scraped and rinsed then put into the commercial dish machine where they go through multiple rinses, detergent, and high heat sanitization cycles,” wrote Guerette.

Sophie Glaser ’22 appreciated Paresky’s handling of preparing food for over 380 students and faculty. However, she has concerns about the waste produced by the containers, as she has not been able to find a place to compost them. 

“So, while the thought [of compostable containers] is great, the reality of it is that our experience with them is about the same as using other plastic containers. To my knowledge, other dorms don’t have composts either, and we can’t reuse the containers. I’d love to eventually use reusable ones, but I know that for safety/logistical reasons, that’s not an option at the moment,” wrote Glaser.

Sakina Cotton ’24 shared her experience of Paresky food delivery on campus. According to Cotton, students are encouraged to only take food that they think they will be able to finish.

“Meals are all individually wrapped or contained servings of food. As it’s just the start of the school year, the serving amounts are still being tampered with too. On some days there will be an abundance of a certain option and the Paresky team will come by to pick up the extras. Now, the food we eat at the dorm is either eaten in our dorm alone or outside, where you are socially distanced from others around you. A typical dinner would come in a container with a recyclable lid but not the container itself,” wrote Cotton.

Cotton suggested the use of completely recyclable containers for a short term fix. She also highlighted that the cutlery used by students and faculty is compostable, but there is not a container for them to be composted. 

“I know times are difficult right now, but I do think providing composting bins and a plan to allow it to be utilized as much as possible is important to do as soon as possible. As for the containers, I wonder if there are non-black or easily recyclable [utensils]-rather than compostable due to the current lack of compost bins-options that could be invested in,” wrote Cotton.

Frank Zhou ’22, head facilitator of the PASC, noted the importance of sustainability efforts both within and beyond the Andover community. According to Zhou, transitioning to using reusable containers is a step in the right direction, but further collective action is also needed.

“As Andover centers itself around community, justice, and joy, it’s all the more important to acknowledge the collective, community-wide commitments that will foster joy and justice not just on the Andover campus, but also beyond it,” said Zhou.

He continued, “The food that we find before us at every meal has tangible environmental impacts, and the waste we produce—be it single-use packaging or single-use utensils—will remain for much longer than that meal does before our eyes. It’s because of this that food waste is a problem we should all care about—it concerns both what we put in our stomach and what we deposit for the future. Andover’s shift towards reusable containers is thus a laudable one, but only the first of many steps that are necessary for us to make for a ‘greener blue.’”