At the tail end of the 1980s, I had a student job at the University of Maine’s Wells Dining Commons. Until the last month of my first pregnancy I worked dish room. While the food was good, it was pretty standard, not really memorable. This was probably typical of college cafeteria food at that time.

This summer, as a newly accepted graduate student, I returned to my roots. I was stunned by the changes that had taken place while I was busy raising children. Wells had evolved into a posh little food court with all kinds of options: traditional hot dishes, grill, a pizza and pasta nook, salad, fruit and yogurt bars — even the option of having the ingredients of your choice stir fried right on the spot.

As amazing as these changes were, they were only the tip of the iceberg. UMaine Dining Services is taking steps to help solve pressing social and environmental problems. I will address three related to food access, waste management and the local economy.

A woman picking up food at UMaine’s Black Bear Exchange is thrilled to find a package of popcorn chicken, something her family adores. Before she leaves, she has found several other items they will really enjoy. Unlike many of us, she can’t take a full fridge and cupboard for granted. On college campuses across the country, tuition is going up while state aid goes down and federal aid falls short of covering costs. At the same time, a growing number of students are food insecure. Many are single parents for whom a degree is essential for a job that will lift their families out of poverty.

The Black Bear Exchange (which also has a clothing exchange) was founded to combat food insecurity among UMaine community members. Until recently, for the most part, their offerings were limited to staples. The purchase of two industrial size freezers has been a game changer. Dining services keeps them stocked with carefully packaged entrees and sides that would otherwise be wasted. The chefs are thrilled to see the fruits of their labor help people in need.

Older people also often face food insecurity. Every year volunteers in Orono grow organic vegetables and distribute them to residents of two housing complexes. So what’s the link between UMaine Dining Services and Orono Community Garden? Compost. Food leftovers are a crucial part of the brown gold that makes the produce delicious and nutritious. Composting is a key element in sustainability and one of the most important things anyone can do to cut down on waste. In addition to taking up scarce landfill space, organic matter, when decomposing, creates dangerous greenhouse gases.

If you ate at a UMaine dining hall in August, you may have noticed a lot of zucchini. In late summer in Maine, it is very much in season. You may have also enjoyed tasty fish dishes. Maine is a state with a lot of ocean access. Dining services now sources 23 percent of its ingredients from local producers — not only produce, but meat and dairy.

The benefits of buying local go way beyond freshness and flavor. The trucks that ship foods over long distances run on fossil fuels, creating greenhouse gases. There’s also the impact on the economy. Small-scale food producing is a risky business. A large-scale buyer like UMaine adds an element of stability to help ensure local suppliers stay in business and hiring, spending money and paying taxes.

One thing, however, has not changed over the decades. Working dining services is still a great way to help finance an excellent UMaine education. Work schedules are built around class schedules — something not easy to achieve in many off-campus venues. Work is walking distance from classes. There’s no need to wait on infrequent buses on frigid winter days or risk losing a parking spot. Instruction in different tasks is done very well. New hires are encouraged to ask questions. Fellow workers are very supportive. Friendships are easy to strike up. There is a free, delicious meal with every shift.

You’d be surprised how many successful people look back fondly on their dining services years and use and value the skills they acquired.

Jules Hathaway is the proud mother of three children (and a 15-year-old tuxedo cat) who has just started her first year in the University of Maine’s higher education program. She aspires to become the poster student for working at Wells because she loves her dining services job.

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