Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) is home not only to one of the top-ranked education programs in the United States, but also the Commons, commonly known as Gutman café. Situated immediately adjacent to the Gutman Library, the café boasts a variety of initiatives in food and waste sustainability. At the heart of this is the partnership forged between the talented chefs of the café and the vendors of the Farmer’s Market in front of the Charles Hotel. Open from early June to late November, the market promotes the efforts of local, small-operation farming, putting a name and a face to produce and meats of all kinds.

But, before we get to growing and eating local, let’s talk about taste. Knowing the café’s reputation for impressive food, I arrived a bit early before an interview with staff to take full advantage of the opportunity. As expected, good food was abundant. In one area, a chef prepared helpings of fresh pasta. Students and employees chose their fixings—sausage, chicken, tomatoes, and other vegetables—and watched as he sautéed their orders one by one. To the left of the sauté station were chicken wings, potatoes, and a variety of sides, and a full salad bar stretched across the servery’s center. A refrigerator with a wide variety of drinks, refreshments, and pre-made meals sat in the servery’s leftmost corner, opposite another chef, who waited to take orders for sandwiches of all kinds. I zeroed in on this section, ordered the sandwich special, and was not disappointed: a grilled sandwich of turkey, sauerkraut, and Swiss, all on rye. The total came out to less than six dollars, leaving my taste buds and wallet smiling. All of this was situated in a very café café: natural light poured in from large windows to supplement the dimmer indoor fixtures, and a fireplace providing a homey ambiance on the cold day.

Next, I had a discussion with Lauren Schmitt, the catering manager for Tables of Content, a catering and dining services company with which HGSE runs the café. Working below the café, Schmitt manages the catering orders, while Meghan Garrity, another Tables of Content employee, helps prepare the café’s menus. Schmitt gave answers to a range of questions on the café’s relationship with the vendors of the market, as well as the HGSE café’s overarching goals in sustainability.

First, Schmitt explained that the Gutman chefs travel to the Farmer’s Market every Friday (when in season), and purchase both produce, meats, and other foodstuffs for the week. The chefs prepare this food for the café’s Market Mondays, a lunch special at the sauté station that features seasonal food from the vendors. Throughout the remainder of the week, the sauté station offers an Asian dish on Tuesdays, Italian on Wednesdays, Tex-Mex on Thursdays, and a locally-caught fish special on Fridays (see the full menu).

The café’s interest in local food extends beyond just the Farmer’s Market. “We just joined this program called Red’s Best, which connects you with local fisherman,” explained Schmitt. “You can look up the name of the fisherman and where exactly the fish was caught, so you can be sure you’re not getting something that’s been shipped and frozen for two weeks,” she went on. Because the market is seasonal, operating from the early summer through late fall, Schmitt explained that the café also works with Costa and Sid Wainer, local distributors that source from farms in the tri-state area. Garrity went into more specifics: “In the winter, we do what we can with lots of root vegetables, greenhouse-grown vegetables and herbs, as well as organic options from further away.”

Alongside the HGSE café’s commitment to preparing local food is its commitment to waste reduction, and Schmitt detailed that her favorite thing about the café is its rigorous composting initiatives. “We stand at the garbage and make sure the customers know what goes in each bin,” she went on. This compost, along with all of Harvard’s organic waste, is sent to a local facility where it is converted into rich organic landscaping material used across Harvard.

Earlier this year, the café also challenged its chefs to a complete a zero waste week, asking the chefs to divert as much trash as possible from the incinerator and landfill. Substituting many items for their own in-house version, and recycling and composting nearly all food and containers, the café was able to fit all of its trash for the week into a single 60-gallon bag. Given Tables of Content’s status as the state’s only Green Restaurant Association certified caterer, this comes as no surprise. Receiving such an honor comes down to the equipment, all of which is Energy Star rated, and purchase of fair-trade and local ingredients.

After hearing about the Commons’ “eat local” and zero waste philosophies, it was clear to me that this café’s service was both to the customer and the outside world, as it offers so much but also strives to leave such a small social and environmental footprint. Giving closure to a great meal, Schmitt said, “Our real goal is to provide the students with food that is sustainable and local, so even on the days that we’re not going to the Farmer’s Market, we can be proud of our ingredients.”

Our real goal is to provide the students with food that is sustainable and local, so even on the days that we’re not going to the Farmer’s Market, we can be proud of our ingredients.