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Lauren McCutcheon: Building Sustainable Communities at Home

“What’s going on at CITRUS House?” Increasingly, this question is making the rounds among Santa Clara students. For good reason, too: CITRUS, an acronym for Community Initiative to Restore Urban Sustainability, is a household unlike most others. From collaborating with the Food and Agribusiness Institute to host workshops on sustainable home cooking, to throwing a “Pancakes by Starlight” party that features mostly vegan breakfast dishes, CITRUS House is combining community engagement and sustainability with the joys of off-campus living. To understand the history and future visions for the eco-abode, we spoke with founder, former resident, SCU alumna (class of 2003), and current 'HouseMama' (landlord) Lauren McCutcheon.

Center for Sustainability (CfS): What's your connection to SCU, and what was the house like when you were living there?
Lauren: I've lived at CITRUS through a few different phases of its history. The first three years (2000-2003) was with three of the other "founding mothers" of CITRUS: Anna Kinney, Sarah Montgomery, and Kristin Silver. After graduating, I left CITRUS to live and work in DC for a short year or so. I moved back into the house in early 2005 and that's when the vision for CITRUS as the Community Initiative To Restore Urban Sustainability began in earnest. Myself and another founding mother, Agnieszka [Mazur] Dumett began hosting both gardening and other community events. She was a student at SJSU at the time and very active in an international youth organization called AIESEC so many of the events in those days focused on international issues. We always aimed to bring members of the community together for fun, connection, and service. We tried to bring the mantra of "think globally, act locally" to life, bringing together people from around the world (and from various different universities) who also had a passion or interest in sustainability and could contribute/share/collaborate/celebrate - then take that home with them. Wednesday night dinners became a regular thing. We would eat food out of the garden, learn about vegetarian cooking, discuss ecological issues, and—depending on available instruments and players—occasionally break into spontaneous jam sessions.

CfS: What people/events/other factors brought up the idea for Citrus?
Lauren: While living at and also managing the CITRUS house, I began to think of the concept of sustainability in a new way. The transience of student residents causes terrible amounts of waste, even in the best intentioned among us. Just take one look in the dumpsters outside the residence halls each spring and you will see examples of the convenience-driven consumerism that plagues our community. I thought, what if we set up a house that bucks this trend? A house that is also a community where furniture, dishes and other household tools can be inherited and shared between generations of residents. And hey--we could also grow some of our own food and teach each other how to cultivate a low-footprint household! Sustainability is not just solar panels and grey-water, it's bicycling and cooking together and composting and learning how to clean without harsh chemicals. So, CITRUS now stands as both a house and a community dedicated to sustainable living through responsible resource management and education. My hope is that anyone who lives or hangs out at CITRUS will walk away with inspiration and knowledge about how to live more lightly on our beautiful planet.

CfS: When you host a party at CITRUS (or attend one), what kind of food do you serve? Any guidelines?
Lauren: My bias is always as much plant-based food as possible, for personal and environmental health reasons! When we do include animal-derived foods, let them be from farmers and ranchers who care about both the animals and the environment. If I were going to plan food for a get-together, I'd start in two places. First, our own garden, pantry and refrigerator: what do we already have that we could use up? Second, the farmer's market. Even if you end up not buying your food from there, regular visits to the farmer's market can help remind us what's in season!

Once we've chosen what veggies and other staples (beans, grains, nuts, etc.) to base our menu around, I'd look for recipes that are easily eaten "out of hand" first. Kebabs, onigiri, dips, sandwiches, etc. are great because there's no need to provide utensils and you can sometimes get away with just putting out napkins (unbleached and with high recycled content, of course!). For cups, plates, and any utensils that do need to be used, using the house's usual stock of washable dishes is always preferred. At CITRUS, we have a somewhat funny tradition that shows our dedication to sustainability: washing and reusing red Solo cups! If disposable dishes must be used, always opt for unbleached paper products that do not have any kind of wax or plastic lining. For utensils, keep in mind that even the "compostable" or "biodegradable" plastics still require a lot of energy to make and transport, can leave traces of micro-plastics in our soils and are usually made from GMO corn and soy.

Lastly, one party trick I use is to save up old containers or jars (from peanut butter, mayonnaise, hummus, etc.) and always have a stash on hand to send friends home with leftovers. This both prevents wasted food and is a great re-use for containers that might otherwise just be thrown into the recycle bin.

CfS: How does your position at Whole Foods (Regional Knowledge Coach) strengthen your commitment to sustainability in the household and with food choices?
Lauren: First and foremost, I'd credit Whole Foods with being the place for my continued and continuing education. I'm so lucky to be in a community of professionals who are dedicated to sustainable living--especially through food. I've learned and am continuing to learn so much about where food comes from and what the concerns are with the way it’s grown, processed, packaged, shipped, displayed, purchased and consumed. Our food system is extremely complex and I believe that if each of us, as a consumer, is not going to take the time to research the food that we buy, then we have to buy it from a retailer whom we trust to uphold our values. For me, Whole Foods has proven their deep commitment to sustainability and transparency over and over again so I feel very good about working and shopping there.

CfS: Do you think celebrating sustainably helps out in some ways that we don't immediately recognize? Building community, perhaps?
Lauren: Yes! Absolutely. In fact, when we founded CITRUS, this was one of the key ideas. We believe that the little bit of extra effort and intention it requires to host sustainable celebrations builds relationships and creativity amongst the party planners, and almost certainly rubs off on the party-goers as well! The one time that someone attends a gathering at CITRUS and tries a new vegetarian dish they love, picks a fresh herb to garnish their plate with, scrapes their plate into a compost bin, or rinses out their red Solo cup...we can know with absolute certainty that these moments make an impact. We can't know what they'll do with their experience, but we can continue to model the low-impact, community-building lifestyle that we wish to see.

CfS: What is your vision for CITRUS in the future, and how can events at the house act as a role model for neighbors?
Lauren: My vision for CITRUS is that it continue to be a "training ground" for sustainable living in the urban environment. The students who live and visit there have an opportunity to demonstrate reverence for the planet and the community by living intentionally and respectfully. The more gatherings hosted at CITRUS, the better! Each time, we can learn from each other and from the experience. Did we make a positive impact? Where was there a lot of waste? What perspectives were missing in our conversations? What could we do better next time? The idea of CITRUS is like a seed that can be planted anywhere; hopefully every CITRUS resident and visitor goes on to create sustainable households all over the world that are like little mini-CITRUSes.

Contributed by Blair Libby, '16, Sustainability Intern, Buildings and Grounds and current CITRUS resident

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