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Chef Nate Jackson sows sustainability 

click to enlarge Executive Chef Nate Jackson in the DIGS Garden at IUPUI.

Just after the lunch rush, on the second floor of the IUPUI Campus Center — an airy, open building that conjures to mind the television show The Jetsons — Nate Jackson is chatting up the barista at the Caribou Coffee kiosk. He's surprisingly calm, given that he just served lunch to 3,000 students, faculty and staff in this and other food venues he oversees on campus.

Clad in a white chef's jacket, Jackson looks like the guy who stops at your table at a fancy restaurant to see how you liked your salmon with dill sauce, or the wine pairing. Jackson has been there, done that: As a professional chef, he's worked in high-end restaurants (including a James Beard restaurant in Nashville) and as a private chef.

Now, feeding thousands a day at IUPUI, he's working closer to where his heart is.

Next generation foodies

As executive chef of IUPUI Food Service, Jackson is in charge of serving primarily young people, the ones who are poised to make the most difference in how we grow, serve and recycle our food for the foreseeable future. In a word, the next generation will either make ours a sustainable planet or they won't — and Nate Jackson would like to do his part to make that at least a possibility.

After Jackson and I pick up our fair trade Caribou coffee and proceed down the hall and up to the fourth floor on the escalator, with stomach-turning views to the ground floor, Jackson shares niceties and sometimes information with others we pass. I get the sense he knows everyone here. Or even if he doesn't — it would be nearly impossible, given that the 33,000 people on campus make IUPUI like a small city — customer service is his priority.

We tour the kitchens behind the food court, meeting a man prepping large buckets of cage-free, antibiotic-free chicken in an industrial sink and a woman arranging house-made hummus and stuffed grape leaves on a tray for a special event.

As we walk, we discuss the joys and challenges of Jackson's job, and what he's hopeful about, which is, to put it succinctly, to change the way we eat.

"I didn't want to own, work, or be in a restaurant that I couldn't afford to eat in. So É what are your options?" Jackson asks. "You either open up your own place and you make that true. Or, you don't take all the risk and all the debt and you find somebody that you can work with and that will work with you to try to change something, anything."

Starting with Styrofoam

One of Jackson's first orders of business as executive chef was to ditch the Styrofoam. But he did it without fanfare — indeed, without telling anyone.

"When I first got here we were using thousands of Styrofoam containers a week," Jackson recalls. Jackson also noticed something else: "We were over-portioning our food. So what I did was, we went to a slightly smaller container to help with proportioning, so people actually get real-sized food."

Jackson took the money that was saved on the smaller portions and applied it to purchasing compostable containers.

"I think a lot of people become gung-ho about the theory of sustainability, but we need to sustain the sustainability. And so we operated for a month and a half without ever even saying anything, because I didn't want to announce something that we weren't doing [anymore], or that we weren't going to be able to hold onto."

As it turns out, Jackson has been able to continue the program — and that led to other efforts. For instance: "Can I get rid of plastic catering trays and use metal catering trays for delivery? No. But at least I can provide a post-consumer plastic that comes from 100% recycled materials."

The opportunity to make a difference with young people, before food habits and tastes become too engrained, was a big draw when Jackson considered coming on board at IUPUI. Jackson's former job as chef for a sorority at IU-Bloomington showed him the scope of possibilities in working on a larger scale.

"The sorority kind of taught me about the fact that higher education is a great starting point, just because you know students are more receptive to healthier food, to more ethical food. And really, the other part of it is that the people who make the decisions, and the people who really drive public opinion on campus, are the staff and administration É [who] also tend to be more conscience-driven when it comes to food. So the combination of all that really kind of piqued my interest."

Jackson also considered taking a job at DePauw University, in nearby Greencastle, a private institution where, as Jackson puts it, "They have the means and the ways to get what they need. And to demand what they need."

IUPUI seemed to be a different sort of institution. It's urban, first of all, with a large commuter population.

"I felt like IUPUI wasn't necessarily not demanding it, but I felt like it would be a great and unsuspecting place to do something awesome."

At IUPUI, there was another population to consider — small children.

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