Cafeteria thinks eco-friendly

You퀌_ve heard of food that melts in your mouth, but how about food cartons that melt 퀌_ although not in your mouth?

Steve Cummings, director of Aramark dining services for Portland State, has a variety of these meltable cartons in his office but so far uses them only for special events. The first such event was the recent new student convocation.

퀌�They will melt in water, but not while you퀌_re eating food out of them,퀌� Cummings said.

Along with the dishware, Cummings displayed a knife, fork and spoon, also biodegradable. These are made of cornstarch and limestone. They have a maximum landfill life of one year.

Up to now, Cummings hasn퀌_t worked out exactly how he can apply them for daily use without raising prices, because they are more costly than paper.

퀌�How do we implement change without getting into people퀌_s pockets?퀌� Cummings asks. He is in discussions with the administration on the potential impact and costs of using more of the biodegradables.

The cartons, along with trays and plates, are manufactured from sugar cane fiber. They are guaranteed to be completely compostable. Even lying inert in a landfill, they would completely degrade over about a year퀌_s time.

The whole new development came from student-generated effort. Last spring, four students 퀌� whose names he didn퀌_t get, but whose photos he has in his computer 퀌� came to him with the non-plastic fork. He checked with a Seattle supplier and found that a company in China produces not only the utensils but also the trays and dishes.

퀌�We do 5,000 transactions a day and we use 10,000 utensils a day in the food court,퀌� Cummings said. Switching completely to sugar-cane fiber, cornstarch and limestone would cost Aramark twice as much as the present cost for such amenities, though doing so would help save paper and trees.

Still, Cummings and Aramark are enthusiastically incorporating sustainability, which Cummings describes as 퀌�a wholesome way of doing business, keeping in mind one퀌_s community.퀌�

He described one potential avenue for cutting down utensil cost. Some students, he said, buy their food elsewhere but eat it in the food court. While eating, they use Aramark퀌_s knives, forks, spoons, paper ware, chopsticks, sauces and napkins.

퀌�It퀌_s possible if you don퀌_t purchase a meal and you want a fork or chopsticks, it might cost you a dime.퀌� He emphasized that charging for dining amenities will not begin without the complete approval of the administration.

Cummings is eager to show off other actions Aramark has taken to improve sustainability. One of these pertains to coffee.

The Smith Memorial Student Union coffee bar is the most successful Starbucks coffee outlet in the area, exceeded only occasionally by their airport location. But Aramark reacted to the requests of advocy groups like Students for Unity to install a fair trade alternative in the food court interior. It offers Pura Vida coffee.

퀌�This is 100 percent fair-trade certified by TransFair USA,퀌� he said. Meeting fair trade guidelines seeks to help small farmers earn a decent living wage and promote sustainable practices. The Pura Vida counter is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., but so far, most students stand in line for Starbucks. Prices for the two coffees are the same.

Cummings directed attention to the policies of The Food Alliance, which certifies that fruit and produce sold in the food court adheres to their goals of preserving water, saving wildlife habitat and reducing the use of pesticides. Aramark is committed to purchasing produce and fruit grown under sustainable conditions.

Cummings said the alliance began in Portland and PSU became its first university partnership. It has extended to more than 60 universities, compelling Cummings to conduct out-of-town workshops on the experience.

He is also proud of his involvement with the St. Vincent de Paul Society through donations to its Food Sharing program. In the 2002-03 school year, Aramark contributed more than 10,000 pounds of everything from muffins to leftover ribs from the food court wok. These are usable leftovers collected each day, not post-consumer table scraps.

Cummings has also been working with the campus program Freshman Experience. Students enlisted in the program have forgone their breakfasts once a month and donated their Thanksgiving dinner to serve a meal to the needy at St. Vincent de Paul.