In the race to sustainability, a small college in central Maine is proving tough competition.

Unity College won the grand prize for sustainability in July at the National Association of College and University Food Services conference in Nashville, Tennessee, beating out finalists Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin, among others.

That success partly reflects a strategic move that places dining services under the school’s sustainability office.

“Everybody’s got to eat, so we are using that common meeting place, so to speak, a common table, to really reflect the sustainable values and mission of the campus,” said Jennifer deHart, chief sustainability officer at the college of about 700 students.

The National Association of College and University Food Services gives the Sustainability Awards to schools that show “outstanding leadership in the promotion and implementation of environmental sustainability.” The association supports the triple bottom line approach that Unity College uses, which measures success not only through finances but also environmental impact and social responsibility. It’s often called “people, planet, profit.”

The association hands out gold, silver and bronze prizes in five categories related to sustainability, and those that win gold compete for the grand prize. Unity College, which diverts nearly half of its waste from landfills, won gold in the waste management category, followed by Oregon State University and Georgia State University.

When Unity won the grand prize, “it was a complete shock,” deHart said.

“We were kind of a David in David and Goliath in this scenario,” she said, as Unity is small compared to many of the other winning schools.

DeHart’s position was created in the 2015-2016 school year to ensure that all areas of campus life aligned with the sustainability goals of the school that brands itself “America’s environmental college.”

Unity has a number of goals and commitments, ranging from a push toward carbon neutrality to ensuring the college has infrastructure in place to adjust to a changing climate, deHart said.

Unity College students work on Feb. 20, 2015, in a warm greenhouse planting vegetable seeds at the school’s Half Moon Gardens/McKay Agricultural Research Station in Thorndike. The produce eventually was to be used for the college dining services as part of the sustainability program. From left are Megan Lewis, Ru Allen, Erin Hogan and Bethany Slack. Staff file photo by David Leaming

Another goal is reducing the school’s waste.

Unity produces about 160 tons of trash each year. About 48 percent is diverted: Organic waste, 23 percent of the waste stream, goes to Exeter Agri-Energy to be turned into energy for a farm; and recycling, 25 percent, goes to a center in Norridgewock. The school uses the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock for trash it can’t send anywhere else.

The average residential college student wastes about 142 pounds of food per year, according to RecyclingWorks, a recycling assistance program in Massachusetts. Another group, known as APPA: Leadership in Educational Facilities, found that a full-time student creates a median 363 pounds of trash each year, according to deHart.

The school has about 485 students on meal plans and about 140 staff members who use the dining hall, as well as a few thousand visitors each year who get free meals, deHart said.

In the winter of 2015, dining oversight was moved from the business office to the sustainability office to improve waste management and the environmental quality of the food the college buys.

DeHart said the collaboration made sense because of the “wide-ranging impacts” dining can have, from the food system to student health.

“It may be different, but it’s effective … in allowing dining to be a leader on campus in sustainability,” she said.

Over the past school year, the college’s dining services used more than 3,600 pounds of produce from the McKay Farm and Research Center in Thorndike, which doesn’t include the amount of produce it converted into things such as condiments and herbed salts.

While the school isn’t saving much money using the farm, it isn’t losing any either, deHart said. McKay Farm has stayed “price competitive” with other small local farms.

DeHart said she hopes dining services will get more food from the farm in the future.

“One of our limitations is the time and storage capacity to process food while it’s in season to be available at different times of year,” she said, which might involve additional infrastructure such as freezers and cold storage.

The school is also working with FINE, or Farm to Institution New England, a six-state nonprofit network working to increase the amount of local food served in schools, hospitals and colleges.

“Anytime schools can work together or with these smaller suppliers, … that creates networks and networks create more market stability in terms of what can be provided and buying power,” deHart said.

Madeline St. Amour can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

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Twitter: @madelinestamour