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Growing forward: Environmental Center plants seeds for next 25 years

The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College celebrates a landmark anniversary this fall: 25 years of teaching and training the leaders of the future to work toward social and environmental justice in the present.

To mark the occasion, the EC is hosting the 15th annual REEL Film Experience on Saturday, November 5, at the Community Concert Hall. The EC will celebrate with free food and beer, birthday cake, and a pre-event march from Durango to the FLC campus.

The theme of this year’s film festival is “Creating a Climate for Change” and will feature several locally produced shorts, including one about the history of the EC, and the full-length film A Time to Choose.

Even though it has a long history of creating change on the FLC campus and beyond, the EC is not resting on its quarter century of laurels. The organization continues to cultivate existing programs and to develop new projects—all of which are powered by FLC students.

Rachel Landis, the EC coordinator for the past five years, trusts in the development and inspiration of these students. “Our mission is to help students strengthen their ability to make change down the road, and do so by working with them on projects here and now,” she says.

The EC groups these projects into four distinct initiatives. Through these initiatives, the EC is shaping the conversation around sustainability and justice at FLC.

Real Food Challenge

The hottest vote facing the FLC campus this fall may not have been political at all. Instead, it might have been the fiery campaign between three organic candidates: zucchini, bell peppers, and tomatoes.

Those were the choices for September’s Vote Real election, in which students, staff, and faculty determine which “real foods” are offered through campus dining.

Exercise Specialist sophomore Aolani Peiper, the team coordinator for the Real Food Challenge Initiative, explains that “real foods” fit at least one of four qualifications: they are humanely produced, they are grown locally, they follow fair-trade guidelines, or they are produced using ecologically sound practices.

On a monthly Vote Real ballot, campus voters pick a product that the campus currently buys conventionally. Then Sodexo, the on-campus food provider, will permanently switch the winner to a real product. The EC touts the Vote Real campaign as the first of its kind in the nation.

All told, the Real Food Challenge aims to shift 20 percent of the college’s food budget, about half a million dollars per year, toward humane, local, fair-trade, and ecologically sound products by 2020.

The EC calculates that, as of the 2015-2016 academic year, 6.7 percent of the school’s food budget went toward real food products. In addition to that, about 600 pounds of qualifying food comes from the on-campus garden run by the Local Food Security team.

“I feel like Fort Lewis is adapting to real food,” Peiper says. “And students can make a difference just by what they eat.”

Local Food Security

The Durango area can sustain many food sources, like apples, squash, and—crickets? Yes. Apparently, they go great with chocolate.

Spreading such knowledge is why the Local Food Security team puts on interactive events during the winter months, when students populate campus but the local crops are not producing. They’ve held a one-burner cooking class, a workshop on growing food from kitchen scraps, and a particularly six-legged event called Crickety Crunch, which compared the environmental impacts of eating bugs to those of more typical proteins, like beef.

Such events are certainly attention-grabbing, but they serve a deeper purpose as part of the Local Food Security Initiative’s mission: making a substantial amount of local food available, accessible, and affordable for FLC students and all residents in the Durango area.

“Food is one of the fundamentals of life,” says team coordinator Paula Pletnikoff, a sophomore in Environmental Studies and Geology. “And you can easily bring community together around food.”

Local food provides a unique opportunity to gather the FLC community in particular. As this year’s grant-funded Local Food Fellows, Pletnikoff and Environmental Studies junior Zack Bukovich coordinate weekly campus garden work days, ultimately producing local organic food for the dining hall.

A main goal of Pletnikoff’s involvement with Local Food Security is to understand why some people don’t have access to local food. “Why are there these inequalities, and what can we do to change it?” she asks. “There's a lot of factors. Where I’m from, nobody talks about this. But this is something that everyone deserves, no matter where they are.”

Zero Waste

Trees are fed by the dining hall too. And not just the campus orchard—the entire campus garden benefits from the food waste composted by the Zero Waste Initiative team.

“It’s a closed-loop system,” team coordinator and Environmental Biology senior Jake Hutcherson says. “We’re always trying to close that loop on our campus.”

The Zero Waste team’s best recognized effort is the on-campus recycling program—which, by the early 1990s, inspired the City of Durango’s own recycling efforts. But their goals go well beyond recycling.

“Our big goals are repurposing and the reduction of consumption,” Hutcherson says.

For example, the Zero Waste Initiative runs the Free Store, a weekly swap meet where students donate clothing, furniture, and other items they no longer use—and all students are free to take, for free, anything they’d like.

The team uses an interesting metric to measure the impact of the Free Store: virtual water equivalency. Virtual water is essentially the amount of water each piece of clothing takes to make. One pair of jeans, for instance, requires about 2,900 gallons. The Free Store calculates that, in a single semester, it repurposes at least a quarter million gallons of virtual water.

These sorts of metrics are important to effecting and measuring change. Yet for all the direct impacts the Zero Waste team makes, Hutcherson realizes the biggest differences come through education.

“One of our most significant challenges is getting past the ‘so what?’ mentality of a lot of people,” he says. “It’s easy to throw numbers at people, but to actually change their mindset is a big hurdle.”

The EC as a whole tries to learn from such struggles. Change, after all, is challenging. But these challenges can also light the path ahead.

Energy Impact

The Fall 2016 semester welcomed the Energy Impact Initiative to the EC. The Energy Impact team aims to mitigate the impact of energy use on campus—a broad goal, since every single thing on campus can be traced to its energy impact.

“What’s great is the body that birthed this initiative is also the body that has a model that works,” team coordinator Charlie Shew, an Engineering senior, says.

The Energy Impact team has chosen to focus its efforts on a few manageable projects while they gain literacy about energy usage, transport, production, and impact.

The most illuminating of these projects will be a light bulb swap. Students will be able to swap their incandescent bulbs for more efficient bulbs, namely LEDs, provided or subsidized by community organizations.

The project touches on implementation—the new light bulbs will reduce energy consumption—but perhaps more powerfully, the Energy Impact team gets the chance to interact with their peers about the impact of simple alternatives.

The team’s other projects focus more on supplementing the College’s Climate Commitment, through which FLC aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2080, on a student level.

Projects that support this mission include highlighting the installation of solar panels with a Solar Celebration, conducting energy assessments of individual offices, and backing a “green revolving fund,” which would essentially invest the money saved through energy conservation into further improvements on campus.

“What's beautiful about the Environmental Center is we have done very well at working our initiatives into the infrastructure of the greater school,” Shew says.  

There’s no way now to measure the difference these Energy Impact projects will make for the FLC community. But a healthy blend of hopefulness and practicality light the way for the Environmental Center as it enters its next 25 years of training today’s students to be the environmental leadership of tomorrow.

“Every tiny little thing builds your hope,” Landis says of the EC’s accomplishments. “I think an essential ingredient to making change is you have to believe it’s possible. These students keep me optimistic about the world. And we’re moving the needle.”

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