Striving toward sustainability, AASHE’s STARS report

Written by Ellis Palmieri, former Research Assistant with the Sustainability Collaborative 

GW received STARS Gold Rating for its 2014 and 2015 report submission.

As 2017 continues to fly by (as it has for this recent college graduate), George Washington’s office of Sustainability and the Sustainability Collaborative are working diligently to complete the university’s third submission of its AASHE STARS report. For those unfamiliar with these efforts, this article will shed light on both the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) report to highlight sustainability efforts in university and college dining service operations.

I first learned about STARS in the summer of 2014 when I worked for GW‘s Sustainability Collaborative conducting research on strategies to advance sustainability curriculum using data collected from leading institutions’ STARS submissions. This experience with STARS prepared me for a role at Bowdoin College (my alma mater) where I led the college’s effort to complete its second submission of the report for the 2014-2015 school year. After three semesters of working on the submission part time, it’s fair to say that I am now well versed in the ins and outs of the platform, what AASHE does and why STARS reports are important for promoting college and university sustainability initiatives.
AASHE is the leading association for the advancement of sustainability in higher education in the world, serving over 900 members across 49 U.S. states and territories and 20 countries. AASHE’s resources are aimed at empowering higher education faculty, administrators, staff and students to be the drivers of sustainability innovation and to lead a global sustainability transformation. These resources range from its Sustainability Bulletin and Campus HUB, its annual Sustainability Conference and Exposition, Professional Development workshops and webinars, and last, but not least, its STARS report.

STARS is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance against benchmarks, peer schools and to highlight and share their best sustainability practices. It is also essential for institutions to complete STARS reports as they are incorporated into the better-known Sierra Club Cool Schools and Princeton Review’s Green College rankings. These national rankings are becoming more and more important to students in their college decision-making process. One area in particular that students’ are focusing on is dining services – they know high quality food comes from sustainable high quality food systems and operations.

The STARS report includes a section for schools to highlight their exemplary dining service operations. These sections of the report focus on food and beverage purchasing policies, low impact dining practices, and educational outreach efforts. I am a former student who recognized the value of attending a college with exceptional dining services, not only for the health benefits, but also for the social responsibility that supporting sustainable food systems instills. AASHE recognizes these benefits as well, and the scoring platform for this section of the STARS report sets the bar extremely high for even the best college and university dining service operations.

On George Washington’s current report it scores low in the dining services section, and while the university is not touted for its dining options, its performance on a sustainability scale is not far behind the nation’s leading dining schools. Take Bowdoin, which is consistently ranked as one of the top dining operations in the country. Bowdoin offers a variety of locally sourced food from its on campus organic garden and the state of Maine, as well as vegan and vegetarian options at every meal, compostable napkins and to-go utensils, in addition to many other commitments to ensure its sustainability operation goals are achieved.

Located in the heart of campus, Moulton Union is one of five dining locations at Bowdoin College, photo source: Wikimedia

Despite these efforts, Bowdoin’s most recent STARS report (submitted in February 2015) fails to score high in the dining services section – this is true for all of the Princeton Review’s top ten dining services institutions (with active STARS reports). As a former student, I can speak to the amazing food options and dining experience, as well as the outreach and educational efforts to promote sustainable and healthy dining practices. The fact that even Bowdoin’s efforts do not earn a passing grade for the STARS dining services section underscores how AASHE strives to drive innovation and push institutions of higher education to be the best they can be in all areas of sustainability. The STARS dining services section calls for continued activism and progress in the area of sustainable dining operations at colleges and universities – there is still a lot of room for improvement and students have a large role to play in encouraging their campus to make these goals a priority. I challenge current students to take initiative and get engaged.

GW currently holds a STARS Gold Rating of 68.76 with hopes to improve upon its score in its third submission, which is set for February of 2018. The current report is linked here if you are interested in exploring GW sustainability efforts further.