Campus & Community

Michelle Gray

3 min read

Michelle Gray, who has had careers as a cooking teacher and social worker, is a customer service manager at Harvard’s Dunster-Mather combined kitchen operation. One day not long ago, she used a handheld clicker to count the number of people she talked to. The answer: almost 300.

In most workday conversations, Gray makes a plug for the environment. For the kitchen staff of 46, her lessons on sustainable practices include: Turn off the lights. And: Cut the power, water, and gas on appliances not in use.

And heat up grills only before you need them. “You don’t have to leave them on all day,” said Gray, taking a lesson from the Green Skillet. That’s a food services conservation program designed by the Harvard Green Campus Initiative.

For students, Gray offers this advice: Take only what you’re going to eat. “We have a lot of waste in this society,” she said. “We buy what we don’t need, and we discard it.”

Robert M. Gogan, associate manager of Facilities Maintenance Operations and Harvard’s waste management impresario, estimated that undergraduate meals alone generate 3,750 pounds of food waste a day — 3 ounces per average meal. “Most people think recycling is the be-all and end-all,” he said. “But the single most important thing I can tell people is: Don’t waste food.”

For one, said Gogan, a lot of food is shipped from faraway places, adding an environmental cost to every meal. “Every bit of that salad from California,” he said, “is flavored by jet fuel.”

At the Dunster-Mather kitchen, where Gray keeps her focus green, a Somat composting machine blends, grinds, and dries 200,000 pounds of organic waste a year. It’s recycled as fertilizer.

As a child growing up in Cambridge, Gray was always the one in her house to shut off the lights and tighten down the faucets. But her moment of real environmental awakening came last year. Leaving work at night, “I used to see all these lights — and it bothered me,” she remembered. “I said: What can I do as a little person? So here I am, a little person, trying to create my own green space.”

Earlier this month, Gray climbed the stairs to the Mather dining hall “and all the lights were out,” she said. “People are getting the message. They’re doing a little. And a little goes a long way.”

If Gray has a green-living mantra, it is that we all count. “Sustaining our world — one person can’t do it,” she said. “But all of us can do it together.”

— Corydon Ireland