University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS)

Sustainability, Wellness & Learning (SWELL) is a campus food initiative to promote wellness through hands-on learning and skill building in sustainability practices to regenerate human health, cultivate a mindful society, and protect planet Earth. SWELL was launched as an educational initiative to support UCCS’s successful transition to a self-operated foodservice structure. Since 2014, UCCS has been making its own menu, with transparent value chain and a campus farm, resulting in creative campus-wide dining options in support of local, organic, and sustainable food systems. The SWELL initiative fits under Dining and Hospitality Services (DHS) and is co-managed by Health Sciences’ faculty who also hold appointments in DHS. SWELL is implemented through graduate assistants in sports nutrition, funded through DHS, with a brigade of undergraduate student volunteers. SWELL also has an advisory board that provides council on SWELL’s goals, which include: 1) Academic Integration, 2) Extracurricular Activities, 3) Operations, and 4) Leadership (on and off campus).

Examples of SWELL programs:

Programs include those focused on health and wellness, sustainability, the farm, and academic programming, such as the Compass curriculum and sustainability-flagged courses. A good example of how UCCS links food, health, and sustainability includes the Gateway Program Seminar “The Farm-to-Table Bootcamp” and the Health Sciences Department’s sustainability flagged undergraduate/graduate course “Food, Culture, Community & Health." In both of these courses, students combine a classroom setting with experiential/service learning on farms, in gardens, and kitchens.


SWELL Project Coordinator: Nanna Meyer and Sean Svette 

Dining Service Provider: Self-Operated 

Ongoing Funding: UCCS Dining and Hospitality Services, Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, External and Internal Grants

MOC Principles Engaged

All SWELL projects and programs are embedded in UCCS’s food philosophy that aligns with several MOC Principles, including transparent value chains, with fresh, seasonal, local, plant-forward menu offerings, focused on whole foods and from-scratch cooking, using appropriate portion sizes and a culturally adapted menu. Protein Flip concepts include locally sourced, plant-based and plant-forward offerings using better and less meat, some of which is replaced by regionally sourced heritage and ancient grains, landrace beans, organic roots, mushrooms, greens, onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. Protein Flip burgers are served on potatoes or chickpea socca rather than a white bun, making UCCS’ dining experience innovative, nutritious, and flavorful.

Strategies for Collaboration

The Flying Carrot Food Literacy Program focuses on establishing a better link between producer and consumer and in the process of learning from the farm and educating their peers and the public, the graduate assistants, also called “The Carrots," covertly instill concepts of food literacy and food citizenship. The Flying Carrot Food Literacy Program has won several awards through its mobile skill-building activities that focus on local food and cooking. The program reaches kids in schools, families at community events, patrons at farmers’ markets, and undergraduate and graduate students on campus. Students working in this program often say “that the Carrot changed their life and that they will never think and act around food the same." The Flying Carrot Food Literacy program convenes weekly over locally grown surplus food, figuring out simple and adoptable recipes for their followers to replicate in their home or dorm kitchens. The Flying Carrot Food Literacy program also works directly on curriculum design, offering educators a refreshed approach to how nutrition could be taught in an outside of the classroom with experiential learning activities, including gardening/farming and culinary arts. Most of the Flying Carrot’s recipes are vegetarian or plant-based.

Food Next Door is UCCS’ 99% local, student-run program which cycles through the University retail and residential dining spaces, always offering taste education, local food literacy, and delicious, planet-friendly, vegetarian SWELL Meals, Protein Flip Burgers, and Grain School cookies. Food Next Door attracts numerous student volunteers, teaching lifelong cooking skills, using locally grown produce from campus and the Arkansas Watershed (Food Next Door), the state of Colorado (Local), and neighboring states, including New Mexico (Regional). Food Next Door goes where gaps in the cross walk from farm to table exist. Food Next Door makes local food work on campus. Food Next Door is a great leadership training for students, as they manage all pieces of a retail or residential dining area, interacting with students, faculty, and staff, and learning literally all steps from seed to plate, starting with Monday morning harvest, followed by chopping, roasting, and steaming, before engaging their peers in the dining hall and offering the choice of a delicious SWELL meal that comes with a good portion of learning. Food Next Door was recently awarded a Bronze medal for the Best and Most Innovative Nutrition & Wellness Program by the National Collegiate Association of University Food Services (NACUFS). Food Next Door kick-started UCCS’s quest for better grain and this sowed the seeds of Grain School.

Grain School, UCCS’s first food-based course, is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, UCCS’s Health Sciences Department, and Dining and Hospitality Services at UCCS. This course is a weekend course that focuses on re-establishing an ancient/heritage grain chain in the Rocky Mountain region and includes besides plant breeders and farmers, millers, and malsters, all links of the Grain Chain, with bakers, brewers, chefs, and engaged grain eaters and home bakers making up the bulk of Grain School’s attendees. This course can be taken for or not for-credit. Students who take the course for college credit will enroll in grain-related research and service learning throughout the spring semester, giving rise to an innovative and vigorously pursued research and grain literacy agenda with outreach to the public. Grain school also reaches to Colorado’s community with Saturday’s Public Forum dishing up a grain-based sampling menu paired to the evening’s scientific, artisan, and consensus-building discourse. Grain School is an annual event like no other, harboring as many faculty as students, thereby offering a vivid exchange of teaching, learning, tasting, waiting (for the bread), and dialogue. When Grain School first launched in 2016, farmers from the Arkansas Watershed called out to UCCS to mobilize research and education to help re-establish a heritage grain chain across the Rocky Mountain region. Today, three years later, Grain School collaborates nationally and internationally and expands its trans-disciplinary approaches to include all aspects of the Grain Chain.

Farmhouse & Cookbook Fridays: Since 2016, UCCS’s Green Action Fund has supported the creation of Food Literacy concepts at UCCS’s Farmhouse. These concepts are all focused on engaging students in food-related actitivities that reach from seed to table and provide experiences that cultivate students’ knowledge and skill building in food literacy. Farmhouse Fridays is part of this program, where students sign up for specific farm and food-related activities. Farmhouse Fridays always includes a lunch, sharing a meal around the table. Specific topics include food and biodiversity, grain literacy, sourdough baking, fermentation & canning, global cuisines, food festivals and celebrations, mindful eating. Up to 20 students take part in Farmhouse Fridays. The Green Action Fund recently awarded the farmhouse a grant for a Student-Supported Published Cookbook, which will take precedent in 2018/2019 with Farmhouse Fridays converting to Cookbook Fridays, inviting students, faculty, and staff to contribute to the creation of UCCS’s first cookbook. The cookbook project also integrates a professional photographer and cookbook author from Santa Fe who will serve as mentor. Due to self-publishing, all revenue of book sales will return to the University and programs such as the Farmhouse.

Farm-to-Institution Internship: This project is a new addition to our academic integration of local food systems, researching success stories in Colorado that have made a positive transition to integrate more local food into their dining services. The project includes interviews with food and nutrition service directors and farm food hubs and cooperatives. This qualitative research focuses on positive trends in local food procurement in pre-schools, K1-12 schools, colleges and universities, as well as hospitals but also highlights lingering barriers. This internship has raised a lot of interest in the dissemination of visual media content with the idea of developing a documentary that both inspires and guides in increasing local food procurement, promoting educational initiatives, and building academic connections. Currently, the documentary is partially supported by Rocky Mountain Farmers Union but is actively seeking funding.


Through SWELL and UCCS’s Food Service Transition to self-operation, research in sustainable, healthful, and local food systems has been augmented. The Flying Carrot Food Literacy Program has shown that those shopping at farmers markets—also recently designated as food citizens—have superior knowledge in sustainable food literacy compared with health sciences students, including nutrition students. These results highlight the need for improved nutrition education that intregrates farm-to-table concepts and sustainable food systems.

Both the Flying Carrot Food Literacy Program and Food Next Door are famous for taste education. UCCS research has shown that taste education increases purchasing of local food offerings (Food Next Door student-run local food station) and that students are willing to pay about 10 percent more for local food. Other data from qualitative research identified that customers at Food Next Door like the knowledge and transparency of what they are served when buying a lunch. They also enjoy speaking with engaged students of both programs, which seems to inspire them to cook more at home.

Since its inception, Grain School has tripled in attendance and has been a critical asset, aligning a university’s food service transition to a more sustainable, healthful, and local food system with a vigorous academic curriculum that fosters hands-on learning along a complex food value chain. Grain School has also enabled a non-landgrant university’s involvement in agricultural science with broad trans-disciplinary collaborations internally as well as with other universities and professionals, including the grain chain’s artisans such as farmers, millers, malsters, bakers, and chefs. Grain School continues to generate research questions and also provides a wonderful means to cross-pollinate with other fields, including the college of business and Bachelor of Innovation projects.

Farmhouse Fridays is evaluated based on student numbers, experiences and what students learn. Many students return to take these free classes and many students become volunteers in other related endeavors such as Food Next Door or the Flying Carrot.

The Farm-to-Institution work at UCCS includes qualitiative and quantitive analysis of data collected from success stories across the state of Colorado. Outcomes will include commonalities among institutions, highlighting both successful pathways and lingering barriers. Thus far, food and labor costs have emerged as main issues but also a lack of interest and awareness among clients and administrators. A documentary should highlight the “unimaginable," inspiring how kids create the lunch hour and how patients select from a farm-fresh menu while getting discharged from their hospital setting to enter life and their homes with a refreshed approach to healthy eating and active living through locally purchased food, gardening, and cooking.


The programs of SWELL would not exist had UCCS not transitioned to a self-operated system. This organizational change currently supports 1.25 FTE of SWELL staff/faculty and 90 hrs of graduate student work per week. It also offers access to a campus farm, a 3,000 square-foot greenhouse, and a farmhouse open to students to learn about topics related to food literacy. Continued challenges include marketing of the programs, continuation after student leadership changes over, and resources besides labor and food cost when local food is procured. For example, the farmhouse requires a budget to support basic operations such as computers, printers, and kitchen supplies. Challenges also include academic integration, trans-disciplinary expansion of graduate assistantships and faculty collaboration, creating new course work, and building curriculum. However, these barriers are also part of the opportunities arising when transitioning food service to a more autonomous system. SWELL staff/faculty should be augmented to 2 FTE or more and food courses, such as Grain School, require university staff support to handle logistics. Finally, leadership turnover requires communication strategies to express student experiences that link to recruitment and retention, and foodservice staff require continued work in assisting with local food procurement and labor in food preparation.

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