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Q&A: Nurit Katz Helps Move UCLA Toward 20 Percent Sustainable Food by 2020

December 16, 2014 |

UCLA's Chief Sustainability Officer. Photo courtesy of Nurit Katz.

Nurit Katz, UCLA’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Photo courtesy of Nurit Katz

Nurit Katz is UCLA’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, a role that has her working to advance a variety of sustainability goals at the university, as well as teaching in the UCLA Extension’s Global Sustainability Certificate Program.

Katz participated in a panel at the Seedstock Reintegrating Agriculture conference in November,where she provided insight into efforts to move UCLA towards its goal of having 20 percent of its food procurement qualify as sustainable by 2020.

We caught up with her after the conference to find out more about how how she does her job, and what projects she is working on to achieve this ambitious goal.

Seedstock: Describe the path of your career; how you did you come to your role as UCLA’s First Chief Sustainability Officer?

Nurit Katz: My background is in environmental and outdoor education. I used to work with kids a lot, taking kids from the city who’d never been hiking out on the trail. I also brought kids to a farm-to-school program where they learned about how to grow healthy food. A lot of kids don’t even know where the food comes from, and they got to participate and help grow food and interact with the farm.That was a really great program.

Teaching is really my first passion, but I also ended up realizing I might be able to change things more at a management and policy level, so I went back to school. I did an MBA and a Master’s in Public Policy, and that’s how I got into the work that I’m doing now. I also found a way to teach through our sustainability certificate program, so it’s full-circle; I’m able to have some teaching opportunities, but my main focus is on managing the sustainability program here at UCLA.

Seedstock: How are you incorporating local, sustainable food into the campus at UCLA?

Katz: We have a system-wide goal for the whole UC system of getting to 20 percent sustainable food purchased by 2020. So we’re trying to get to where at least 20 percent of the food that we buy is either local, or organic, or fair trade, or some other relevant sustainable category. It’s not necessarily all local farms, local is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not a requirement for us. If you’re familiar with the Real Food Challenge, our policy follows similar guidelines.

One of our challenges is that we are basically a small city. We have a daily population of 70,000 and our dining facilities are serving thousands of meals everyday, so finding the products we need in the volume we need is often challenging. Sometimes we’ll work with local farms trying to get free-range chicken or whatever the item is, and they’re often not able to supply the volume that we need, so that can be challenging.

Seedstock: Are you on track to reaching that goal?

Katz: We’ve already exceeded our 2020 goals in some areas. Our health system, which includes the hospital, patient food and cafeteria, and all the food that the hospital purchases, is almost at 30 percent. Overall, we’re at 16.6 percent for the 2013-2014 year, so we still have five or six years to go and we’re quite close to our goal, which is exciting.

When we started tracking, in 2009-2010, we were at 4.7 percent, so we’ve almost quadrupled or at least tripled the amount of sustainable food we’ve purchased in four years.

Seedstock: How do you engage the student population as you work toward these goals?

Katz: We have a student food collective, like a buying club. We have CSA dropoffs on campus for students and staff. There are a lot of ways to be engaged around food culture at the university, and I would say overall students have been really enthusiastic.

We just opened a new dining hall, Bruin Plate, and it was recently honored with a best practice award in sustainable food by the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference.

The dining hall has a focus on both sustainable and healthier food, and it’s been hugely well-received by the students. There are lines at every meal, and when it first opened, the lines were down the stairs. Instead of soda, for example, they have juice spritzers, so students can still have something bubbly and refreshing, but lighter on the sugar and healthy. Bruin Plate exceeds the 20 percent goal also, for that dining hall. There’s an extra focus there on sustainable food.

We also held a Meet the Farmers/Vendors fair at Bruin Plate. It allowed students to directly meet the farmers and the vendors who were supplying sustainable food. That was really neat, we’re really trying to connect to things more directly with the sources there.

Seedstock: What advice do you give to other institutions looking to incorporate sustainability into their food service?

Katz: My advice would be to make sure that you have a good team put together. You want to make sure that your dining professionals are at the table with the sustainability people, working collaboratively. Putting together a good team makes a big difference. Our Sustainability Manager for Housing and Hospitality Services leads our sustainable food efforts coordinating with Dining and the Health System and ASUCLA. Many hardworking staff and students have made this progress possible.

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