We Take Going Green Seriously
Our Color is Green. In the Adirondacks, sustainability is a way of life – and it's incorporated into the fabric of Paul Smith’s College. Whether our curriculum, our organic maple syrup, our campus garden, our sustainability fund, or our surroundings, we take going green seriously.
It’s only the third day of Kevin McCarthy’s American Gastronomy class and already things have gotten outside the box. Way outside. Instead of meeting in one of the culinary arts practice kitchens, McCarthy and his students hike down to Lower St. Regis Lake and circle around a hand-dug fire pit glowing with orange-hot coals. They’re each given whole quails and ducks, large hunks of raw salmon, and the “three sisters” of Native American agriculture: corn, beans and squash.
“The Native Americans didn’t have recipes, so we’re not going to use recipes,” McCarthy tells them. They didn’t have convection ovens, either. “Each group of students has to cook their food over an open fire pit with no utensils.”
The students only have a day to come up with a plan. Some will wrap the fish or meat in corn leaves and toss directly onto the hot coals. Others stuff the salmon with wet moss to steam it from the inside. All of them will walk away from the unusual exercise with new appreciation for where exactly American cooking began and how far we’ve drifted from the seasonal and the simple.
If these students are going to run their own restaurant kitchens someday, McCarthy wants them to take a hard look at what goes on the menu. What are the real-world benefits of labels like “local” and “organic,” and when does price and geography trump culinary philosophy? With each dish and each ingredient, he wants them to ask, “Why or why not?” And equally important, “When?”
“Just because you make a great dish with strawberries, it doesn’t mean you have to put that on the menu in February,” McCarthy says.
To drive home his message, McCarthy will take the students to small local farms to milk goats, pick apples and harvest chickens with their own hands. Eventually, McCarthy says, something will click in their heads. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t realize this was right in my backyard.’ From that point on, they will look at the ingredients they use in a whole different way.”
When you get down to it, this is the most basic message of sustainability — to look at the resources that we use with new appreciation. A chef that understands how much effort and energy goes into raising an organic chicken will show greater respect and care for that ingredient. In the same way, the more we know about the environmental impact of our energy consumption, the more respect and care we will invest in our energy choices.
At Paul Smith’s College, we not only teach sustainability in our forestry and culinary classes, but we practice it on campus. In 2007, we signed the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge signed by hundreds of American colleges and universities to significantly reduce our collective carbon footprint. Two years later, the College drafted its first Climate Action Plan, which sets a goal of achieving 100% carbon neutrality by 2029.
“Everything that we do contributes to the Climate Action Plan and that goal,” says Kate Glenn, who runs the Campus Sustainability Office. That includes a pledge that all new buildings on campus will be LEED certified, efforts to include more local and organic ingredients in our cafeteria and cooking classes, and a promise to offset 100% of our current energy use with renewable energy credits.
Students play a huge role in Paul Smith’s sustainability success. Every semester, Paul Smith’s faculty, staff, staff and students are invited to submit grant proposals for tens of thousands of dollars in funding for projects that reduce energy consumption. This Campus Sustainability Fund is paid for by a $26 fee that’s included in tuition. Since it’s the students’ money, the students are the ones who ultimately decide which projects to fund.
In 2012, Paul Smith’s students chose junior Jon Buyl’s grant proposal to the tune of $43,076. The Montgomery, N.Y., native and environmental studies major proposed a new electricity metering system that recorded the real-time energy use of each individual residence hall on campus. Not only would the new system provide more detailed data about energy usage on campus — accessible by a touch-screen monitor in the Student Center — but it would allow each dorm to battle one another for the title of campus sustainability king.
The rules of the game are simple. Every year, the residence hall that uses the least amount of electricity wins first pick in the next housing lottery. With that kind of motivation, perhaps it’s not surprising that the first winner was Clinton Hall, a dorm filled mostly with freshmen. To earn first dibs on highly coveted suites and spacious singles, they cut their total energy use by almost 20 percent.
“It was pretty crazy some of the ideas they came up with,” says Buyl. “If 20 people wanted to watch Duck Dynasty, they would cram into one person’s room. They would only do their homework during the day, so they wouldn’t have to turn their lights on. They not only combined loads in the washing machines, but some of them bought drying racks so they wouldn’t have to use the dryer. It was really great to see the kind of community that was built over trying to reduce energy.”
Other student proposals that have been funded include dual-flush low-flow toilets, water bottle filling stations, and a new sugar house for the Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC).
Meanwhile, everyone on campus does his or her small part to live every day a little bit greener. The draft horse club plows the campus organic garden with literal horsepower. Environmental science students research ways to lower the carbon footprint of faculty commuting. And when Kate Glenn is done with a long day at the Sustainability Office — perhaps booking a sustainability lecture series or editing students’ grant proposals — she picks up kitchen scraps from the St. Regis Café to feed to her pigs at home. That’s called walking the walk.