If you ask leaders at Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, being kind to the planet should be a central part of learning to cook and serve food.
Since 2009, the institute at 336 W. Clay Ave. in Muskegon has incorporated sustainability education into its curriculum. Instructors teach students how to head off inefficiencies by purposeful purchasing and inventory practices — as well as concepts like social and corporate responsibility, food waste management, composting and recycling.
Jamie LeRoux, program director of baking and pastry, culinary arts and food and beverage management at CIM, said in the food industry, there often is a gap between ideals and practice. The institute is trying to chip away at that gap.
“I think our students are far more in tune with some of the (sustainable) practices people should utilize than what I grew up with, but there still is a consistent issue with how they practice things at home versus how they learn it here,” she said. “We’re not just talking about how to make a difference here in this industry but also with lifestyle behavioral practices.”
Rose Spickler is an adjunct faculty instructor at CIM who works closely with the school’s sustainability committee to evaluate the comprehensiveness and quality of its sustainability education in the classroom and in internships and lab settings.
“We talk about communication and walking the talk in the industry,” Spickler said. “A lot of our students work part or full time or do internships. We communicate about how best to influence others in the industry to become more sustainable — walking the talk, living sustainably at work and helping or encouraging others who aren’t under the influence of CIM.”
One way Spickler and the sustainability committee is doing this is by nixing the mindset sustainability education should be standalone, apart from the other skills students need to learn.
Instead, the committee is looking to teach underlying critical thinking skills in courses such as purchasing, table service and restaurant technology, as well as the culinary-focused classes.
“In our skills classes — we have both culinary arts and baking and pastry — there are small lessons to be learned that shouldn’t necessarily be labeled sustainability, like waste management, which is beneficial as a whole to the bottom line and is a good standard restaurant practice,” Spickler said.
The school requires all students to take a core class called Intro to Food Service and Hospitality. Part of the course is quite literally hands on.
“There’s a portion of the intro class where students have to go to a local company or food service establishment and ask for a day’s worth of their trash to identify how the company’s waste management can be improved,” Spickler said. “They get to dumpster dive.”
LeRoux said the 10-week-long course is 75 percent focused on sustainability concepts, even though in some cases, the instructors are starting from scratch teaching these ideas.
“Because it’s their first class, we have to do groundwork,” she said. “The first three weeks are almost like an orientation, and then we hit them hard with sustainability concepts.”
Spickler and LeRoux agreed sustainability concepts should be considered a basic element of a well-rounded education.
“It shouldn’t be its own discipline; it should be interdisciplinary and cohesive with all we do,” Spickler said.
LeRoux added: “We do that with our math, writing and nutrition. It’s all connected together.”
Part of Spickler’s mission, she said, is to cultivate ethical decision-makers who embed themselves in the community as a force for positive change.
We want “to take sustainable practices everywhere, so that if (students) do choose to start their own bakery or restaurant, it’s just ingrained,” she said. “We’re trying to ingrain these ideas in them, and we’re hoping they don’t forget them. We want them to take them public.”
LeRoux said the culinary institute is not an island when it comes to these priorities.
“Muskegon County, in general, is influential in some of the same practices, so there are programs happening around us that are really taking off right now,” she said. “Rose tries to go to some of those meetings, and other committee members do, too. We’re a small piece of the puzzle, so we try to look at how we fit into what the rest of the county does.”
While the culinary school harnesses the latest manufacturing technology to stock its kitchens and dining rooms with recyclable takeout containers, cutlery and cups, and its classrooms with waste-reducing printers, LeRoux and Spickler said one persistent obstacle to eco-friendly practices is that Muskegon does not offer free recycling.
“We pay,” LeRoux said. “There are limitations within it, too. We can only recycle plastic, metal and paper. They don’t pick up glass. We have faculty members from the sustainability committee who tackle all the glass from bottles of wine and packaging, and they put it in their own recycling and pay to have it picked up from home.”
CIM lab classes and kitchens come equipped with bins for compost, recycling and trash, and the school plans to extend the system to its on-campus, student-run restaurant, Courses, which is open to the public during the academic year.
LeRoux said the institute, like most colleges and universities these days, cuts paper waste and overhead by using an online blackboard system, having students submit assignments via Google Docs, offering textbooks in e-book format and incorporating supplemental materials, such as free online videos.
“We have hard and fast requirements about how much paper we can use as an institution,” LeRoux said.
No matter how consistent and thorough the culinary institute is in its sustainability education, Spickler said it is up to the students to use their knowledge once they graduate.
“A lot of what I’ve been reading recently is students wanting to see what they’re learning in action,” she said. “It’s like when you’re in high school geometry class and you ask, ‘When will I ever use this in real life?’ Students sometimes say, ‘I’m not seeing this in the industry.’ So we’re working toward that and having people follow through on it in life settings.”
“We can preach all we want, but then when they go out into organizations and don’t see it happening, (it goes nowhere).”