Providing Local and Sustainable Food for Our Community

 The kitchen at Ernest’s Dining Room

The kitchen at Ernest’s Dining Room 

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is a publically funded and independently operated polytechnic located in Edmonton, Alberta. NAIT’s food services department, eat AT NAIT, has taken numerous steps towards making the campus a leader in providing local, sustainably produced food to its students and staff. Buying local is not always easy, especially for larger institutions. Eat AT NAIT is tasked with providing fresh, nutritious food for thousands of students and staff on a daily basis. Filling large food orders is difficult for local companies, many of which do not have the infrastructure in place to supply larger institutions. Despite the obstacles, NAIT is proving up to the challenge, and is already purchasing a number of products from local producers including specialty vegetables and Nantes carrots from Riverbend Gardens and beef and pork from the Camrose Hutterite Colony. NAIT’s “Corner Store” is another way that eat AT NAIT is supporting local food. Prioritizing the sale of local products like Transcend coffee and Italian Shop pastries, the Corner Store has proven to be a very popular addition to campus.

In addition to buying local, NAIT is always considering other sustainability factors. “Purchasing local food is a priority to us, but we are also always thinking about other ways to increase our economic, social, and ecological sustainability,” said Kim Allen of eat AT NAIT. Limiting food waste is another way that the eat AT NAIT team contributes to food sustainability. NAIT uses “second quality” or “imperfect” vegetables like local peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers that would otherwise end up in the trash. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Allen. Local company’s get to sell product that would otherwise be thrown away, and NAIT gets fresh, flavourful veggies at a reduced cost, while at the same time helping to alleviate the problem of food waste. NAIT further reduces food waste by donating surplus food to local charities and sending used cooking oil away to be converted into alternative fuel.

Locally grown “Imperfect” cucumbers given a second chance by eat AT NAIT 

NAIT’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond the boundaries of the campus to consider the wider community. For example, eat AT NAIT works closely with the Edmonton Waste Management Centre (EWMC) to ensure they are making packaging decisions that work with the broader waste system. As Allen put it, “sustainability means thinking holistically and factoring in the full cycle of production, consumption, and waste.” Allen and the eat AT NAIT team see sustainability through a “systems” lens, paying close attention to factors like where their food is coming from, what conditions it was produced under, and how it was transported. These considerations are expressed in NAIT’s food sustainability program, which targets changes in food supply chains.

Animal welfare considerations are also top of mind for the eat AT NAIT team. NAIT refuses to purchase pork made from pigs raised using gestational crates and has switched to using halal chicken. “We understand it continues to be largely a factory farming world,” says Allen, “but we do the best we can to ensure the proteins we purchase come from animals that have been treated humanely.”

NAIT further contributes to a vibrant local food system through their renowned culinary arts program. As I discovered in speaking with Allen, the culinary program is well integrated into campus food services and also provides the wider public with a source of local food. Food prepared by culinary students is served in the Common Market (the campus cafeteria), and locally sourced meat cuts and cheeses are sold through NAIT’s in-house retail meat store.


Local produced cheeses made by NAIT Students

After our interview, Hong Chew, Chair of Culinary Arts at NAIT, led me on a tour of some of the culinary spaces on campus, including the unique cheese making facilities where students can learn the fundamentals of artisanal cheese making. I was lucky enough to sample some delicious cheddar and feta cheeses made by NAIT students. Chew also walked me through NAIT’s “culinary crown jewel,” Ernest’s Dining room, which provides another opportunity for students to learn in a real-world setting, while at the same time providing the public with a great place to dine. Beyond a wealth of real world experience, students also contribute to local food security and community by preparing food for events such as the annual Boyle Street Thanksgiving.

NAIT is an invaluable part of Edmonton’s local food landscape, and they continue to strive towards making positive change through food. Allen currently working with the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab to try and find more ways to get Alberta food on NAIT plates. “Due to our size,” says Allen, “our best bet is to work with food distributers like Sysco and GFS…the learning lab is one place we can work collaboratively to support local food.”

This profile of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) has been developed from a presentation given by Kim Allen of NAIT’s food purchasing team at the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab meeting on March 7, 2017. In addition to drawing from meeting notes, I arranged a follow-up interview and tour with both Kim Allen and Hong Chew at the NAIT campus.

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