Farms, History, and Homemade Bread

With the semester winding down and students immersed in final papers and exams over the last couple of weeks, I have had a little extra time on my hands to leave Grounds and continue my exploration of the Charlottesville foodshed.

On Monday, December 9th, head chef Bryan Kelly and I ventured up to the northern part of Albemarle County to tour Currituck Farm. This cattle farm is notable for a few reasons: it is a potentially hyper-local source of grass-fed beef, arriving at UVa Dining halls from just twenty minutes away (processing takes place in-state, as well); supporting this local farm would also mean supporting our own county's economy; and Currituck happens to be owned and operated by one of Albemarle County's very own Supervisors, Ann Mallek.

Currituck is a beautiful farm, and even from a brief visit it was evident that every cow in the small herd is healthy and contented. Students (hopefully) will be fortunate indeed to get a taste of beef raised and processed in such a sustainable way.

At the end of the same week, I traveled down to Raphine, VA, near Lexington, for a visit to the historic Wade's Mill; a still-functioning mill that has been in operation since 1750. I had the chance to poke around the historic structure and learn more about its workings from owners Jim and Georgie Young.

After a delightful local lunch at Jim and Georgie's lovely farmhouse, I mused aloud at the likelihood of Thomas Jefferson himself ever eating something containing flour ground at Wade's Mill. Georgie explained that mills were rather commonplace in the 18th century, and Thomas Jefferson probably consumed flour ground closer to home. This doesn't rule out the possibility, she admitted, of Jefferson's travels to Poplar Forest or to Lexington taking him perhaps right past Wade's Mill, or even along the same road as the mill. Regardless of how close the two ever actually came, there's something compelling about the thought of Jefferson being a contemporary of this steadfast building - and the fact that his writings and ideas continue to nourish our minds, just as the mill still grinds out a product that continues to nourish our bodies.

Over this past weekend, while trapped inside my house thanks to the Blizzard of 2009, I had plenty of time to try my hand at making bread from scratch, using - what else? - Wade's Mill flour. The bread turned out perfectly, and the time and care I put into crafting it, combined with my gratitude for the miller's work, made the eating quite a pleasurable experience. There is certainly a satisfying symmetry to it all.


Wendell Berry: Essayist, Poet, Novelist and Inspirationalist

Last week, UVa was incredibly fortunate to host acclaimed writer Wendell Berry as the latest visiting scholar in the Brown College Environmental Writes and Scholars Lecture Series. He gave a poetry reading from his latest collection, Leavings, on Wednesday, December 2nd in the Rotunda Dome Room, and also gave a talk on sustainable agriculture the following evening, December 3rd, in the Harrison/Special Collections Auditorium. The auditorium was filled to capacity nearly an hour in advance of Berry's lecture -- clearly, there's a genuine and pressing interest within the UVa community to understand this topic more deeply.

If you weren't able to attend the lecture (or couldn't get in), you can download the podcast by visiting the UVa Podcast site and clicking on "Take Me to UVa iTunesU" on the right-hand side of the page. Wendell Berry's lecture is podcast number 63.

I associate Wendell Berry - especially his poetry - with sitting around the kitchen table at Waterpenny Farm, eating a dinner of food grown by our own hands after a long day of working in the field with that same produce, and listening to a fellow intern and English Master's student read aloud to us all Berry's Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. I think Mr. Berry would approve.


Sustainability in the News

Two articles have come out this week regarding University (and Dining) sustainability efforts. The first article comes to us by way of the Cavalier Daily, and it's essentially a review of the sustainability work that took place on Grounds this past semester, with a look forward to the spring. Read the article here: "University departments review green initiatives."

The second article comes from UVa Today, with a focus on tips from University-wide sustainability staff regarding how to sustainably celebrate the holidays. Read here: "Dreaming of a Green Christmas? Holidays Can Be Sustainable."

As a bonus, the University of Virginia Magazine recently produced a segment on the most recent sustainable Dining goings on. Watch here: "Green Dining at U.Va."


Aramark Sustainability Stewards Conference, 11/2-11/4

This is dated information, but I have been remiss in not posting about the Aramark Sustainability Stewards Meeting that we hosted here at UVa last month. Sustainability Stewards and Coordinators from around the country (Arizona, Minnesota, Vermont, Texas, Idaho, Florida, headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and more) gathered in Charlottesville for an intense three-day meeting in which we covered the Green Thread pillars (Aramark's Sustainability initiative), visited local farms, and a lot in between. Every account - not to mention region - is in a very different place than the others, meaning that most of what we dealt with was very top-level and broadly applying to Aramark Higher Education. Consistency is important, but it's also worth noting that some of those differences between accounts are very valuable (Florida's local growing season in comparison to ours, for example) and not to be overlooked.

While figuring out how to strike that balance during the conference, I was fortunate enough to meet the many creative thinkers that make up the Higher Ed sustainability team: I have sent nearly countless emails to some of them in the past month, and appreciate just how important collaboration is in our line of work.

Enjoy a few photos of our time together:

The Armark Sustainability Stewards team

At one of our brainstorming sessions

Touring the Monticello visitor's center with Monticello Garden Director Peter Hatch

Dinner at the lovely Colonnade Club

Panorama PayDirt owner Steve Murray explains his composting operation

The team learns about the composting process

Wolf Creek Farms owner John Whiteside chats with me about his cattle operation

Part of the Wolf Creek herd

Perfect Flavor sorbet at our last conference lunch


UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning: Local Thanksgiving

A local Thanksgiving meal brings to mind one word: Yum! Last Friday's dinner -- graciously hosted by UVA's Urban Planning Department -- lived up to expectations and then some, and anyone that argues that local food limits one's diet should have seen the spectacular array of dishes at St. Paul's: - breads, biscuits, cheeses, salads, casseroles, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, squash (of all varieties), stuffing, gravy, applesauce, raspberry ice cream, pumpkin spice cake, and of course Polyface turkey. How amazing to think that each of those food items had been grown and processed within Virginia, and ultimately prepared here in Charlottesville. The only item missing from a regular Thanksgiving feast was the cranberry sauce, but I didn't even notice it wasn't an option until halfway through my meal. I'll happily trade that cranberry sauce for everything else that was on my plate!

On a flattering note, the Planning Department identified a few of us in attendance as VIFs: Very Important Foodies. I'm reminded of all the work still cut out for me, but am driven to continue such work by the palpable sense of community present that night in response to our fundamental need for food -- not only in a survival sense, but also in a social sense. Sure food production is work, but it's also an opportunity to celebrate and build relationships every time we eat. I'll certainly keep that in mind as I gather with my family for Thanksgiving on Thursday.

For more information about eating locally, look to the 100 Mile Diet website (the inspiration for the Planning Department's first Local Thanksgiving feast four years ago). Happy local eating!


NWF Generation E Report

About a year ago I was asked to share my student-initiated food waste reduction success story with the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF), as they were compiling accounts from current and former students from college campuses across the country into a comprehensive student environmental activism report. This report, "Generation E: Students Leading for a Sustainable Future," was just released this week and covers the spectrum of student involvement in sustainability initiatives in institutions of higher education, from greenhouse gas inventories to bicycle share programs, from student eco-rep programs to local food in dining halls.

One of the 35 topics is Trayless Dining: check out page 38 of the report for NWF's profile of (and my account of) UVa's food waste audit and ultimate move to trayless dining. There's even a vintage 2006 photograph of me and Suzanne Pinckney (CLAS '06) scraping plates!

I encourage you to give the report even just a quick look-over: there are lots of wonderfully concrete examples of student activism from a wide variety of schools; UVa could still stand to implement quite a few of those right here on our Grounds.


Movie screening success

Last night's screening of Food, Inc was a solid success: approximately 150 students and Charlottesville community members turned out to view the film! Looks like that publicity push really paid off... The most encouraging part about the audience last night was that the majority of faces there were unfamiliar; it was great to feel like I wasn't just preaching to the choir, but rather (as was my intent) was reaching a group of people that are just beginning their education about sustainable food.

After the film, Dining hosted a reception in the theater lobby and several groups graciously agreed to table the event - thanks to the UVA Community Garden, Slow Food UVA, the Student Council Sustainability Committee, the Nourish(meant) Project, and The Local Food Hub for joining Green Dining in sharing information about the alternatives to our currently petroleum dependent, corn-based, socially unjust, and consumer-disconnected food system.

At the reception, I asked students to write down their suggestions for ways that Dining can change in order to move away from that system, and I got some good ideas. Their suggestions are listed below, with my comments in green:
  • Continue advertising the reusable to-go container program and/or make it mandatory - I think going mandatory is a great idea, and will almost certainly happen at some point, especially if there is strong student support.
  • Promote vegetarian and vegan options in the dining halls - Food, Inc spends a lot of film time focusing on the problems with today's meat industry, and rightly so. There have been many conversations about a "Meatless Monday" - or something similar - in the dining halls, and I participated in a great webinar yesterday afternoon prior to the film screening that focused a great deal on Johns Hopkins' success with educating students about the environmental impact of consuming meat, as well as making their veggie/vegan options tastier and more appealing.
  • Organize a panel discussion re: Green Dining and inform students about the current obstacles to sourcing locally - Great idea.
  • Expand composting to all dining halls - All of the current UVA Dining waste at Panorama has been tested and confirmed that it is safe. The first batch of Panorama PayDirt that includes our organic waste was just sold (!) and we're moving forward with the DEQ to start composting at Runk next.
  • Work with The Local Food Hub - Local Food Hub director Kate Collier and purchasing & operations manager Alan Moore will be sitting down with Bryan Kelly and myself right before or after Thanksgiving to discuss current roadblocks in our attempts to partner with each other, and how to solve those issues so that Local Food Hub food can make more regular appearances on Grounds.
  • Increase amount of local food served in dining halls - Ongoing... Check out the Dining section of the UVa Sustainability webpage for greater details about our current local purchasing relationships and the other four components of our sustainable purchasing guidelines (seasonal, organic, humanely raised, and fairly traded): UVa Sustainability: Dining.
  • Take a Polyface farm tour - Dining probably won't organize an official trip to Polyface, since we don't purchase from Joel Salatin, but it is likely that we will organize a trip up to Wolf Creek Farm (in gorgeous Madison County), our current source of local and sustainably raised beef.
  • Donate unused portions of food to local organizations that can serve it - The Campus Kitchens Project is ironing out the final details so they can begin taking those unused portions and delivering them to the Charlottesville Salvation Army and other similar organizations.
  • Reduce plastic wrap use - I assume this was in reference to the Catering items that were wrapped in plastic for the post-film reception. Some plastic is necessary to avoid attracting flies, etc, as well as to convey to random passersby that the food is not available to them, but I agree that wrapping a tray three times over is on the excessive side (not to mention difficult to unwrap).
  • Campaign to reduce food waste - The two food waste audits conducted in the dining halls have both done a great job of putting this issue on students' radars, but I'm sure that re-evaluation is needed on the kitchen preparation side as well.
  • Hold cooking classes featuring organic and seasonal ingredients - Great idea!
  • Discourage Catering employees from discarding reusable items (plates, cups, etc) after events - I will take a look at the current policies.
  • Educate Aramark employees about food waste and the environmental arguments for purchasing organic and local items - Proper food portioning is always good to keep in mind. Jim Bleakley (HR Manager at UVa Dining) and I are working together to start an incentive program to make conservation efforts as routine a part of the work shift as safety currently is.

Further suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email (kendall.singleton@virginia.edu).


Local Food Workshop: Black Eagle Farm

A consistently rewarding part of this job is my ability to meet and establish relationships with local food producers -- especially because I don't have to travel far off Grounds to do so. A couple of weeks ago, I made it down to Black Eagle Farm, about forty minutes away in Nelson County, for the third and final presentation in a series of farm workshops organized by the VA Cooperative Extension. Black Eagle Farm is a gorgeous 1000-acre property that has been farmed since the 18th century. The current owner decided to preserve such historically agricultural land by keeping it in production, and hired a live-in farm manager to oversee all operations: natural beef, pork, lamb, and goat, and organic certified eggs.

The main focus of the farm is the egg operation, known as Piney River Organics. The farm maintains about 50,000 birds, and such a large scale clearly necessitates quite a bit of mechanized labor. The chickens lay their eggs on what is actually a small conveyor belt; this whisks away the eggs off to the washing and sorting room, where the eggs are cleaned and automatically separated according to size. It's actually a rather impressive and well-run operation, but it does bring up questions about the inevitable impact of such a large volume of one species in a fairly contained space, as well as the footprint of a process so reliant on machinery (and oil). Certainly, though, this organically certified system is far more desirable than the conventional alternative -- and while our economies of scale are currently preventing us from moving towards an even lower impact operation, we'll just have to take it one step at a time.


FREE Screening of Food, Inc at UVA next Tuesday!

UVa Dining and the Office of the Vice President & Student Affairs co-present a FREE screening of Food, Inc at UVA next Tuesday, November 17 at 7pm in the Newcomb Theater. This event is open to the general public.

From the website: "In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.... Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) along with forward thinking social entrepreneurs like Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising—and often shocking—truths about what we eat, how it's produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here."

Stay for a reception following the film, featuring local foods as well as displays from student groups already working towards alternatives to our current system, including the UVA Community Garden, Slow Food UVA, the Student Council Sustainability Committee, and Green Dining.

Watch the trailer.

See you next Tuesday!


Sustainability Day Press Release

Sustainability at the University of Virginia

Contact: Kendall Singleton
Tel: 434.924.5864
Email: kendall.singleton@virginia.edu


As part of a widespread effort to spread sustainability awareness throughout college and university campuses across the country, the University of Virginia will be participating in the 7th annual Campus Sustainability Day on Wednesday, October 21. The focal point of this day is a nationally streamed webcast, “Sustainability Strategies for Vibrant Campus Communities”, hosted by New York Times science reporter Andy Revkin. The webcast will be sponsored on Grounds by U.Va. Community Relations and the Office of the University Architect, and will take place from 1-2:30 in the Newcomb South Meeting room. “Those interested in promoting sustainability are welcome and encouraged to attend,” says U.Va. Sustainability Planner Andrew Greene. A brief informal reception and follow-up discussion will take place in the South Meeting room immediately following the webcast. Please join other sustainably-minded students, faculty and staff in Newcomb to learn what other schools are doing to foster sustainability on their campuses.

Because the University of Virginia already has a significant number of actively engaged community members making substantial strides towards promoting sustainable practices on Grounds, additional U.Va.-specific events are planned for the 21st. In an effort to encourage waste reduction behavior, U.Va. Dining will begin offering a new punch card to reward students for providing their own travel mug when purchasing coffee. A frequent travel mug user will be eligible for two free coffees at any Dining retail location after bringing in his or her reusable mug eight times.

U.Va. Dining will also host a Green Plate Special Theme Meal at Observatory Hill Dining Hall during dinner on October 21. Select items on the menu will celebrate the abundance of Virginia farmers’ agricultural pursuits, as well as the other tenets of the Green Dining Committee’s identified sustainable dining practices: seasonally grown, organically grown and raised, humanely raised, and fairly traded. In tandem with the sustainably-focused meal, students at the dining hall will have the option to sign up to participate in Dining’s recently created reusable to-go container program.


Sustainability at the University of Virginia is an initiative spanning disciplines and schools with the common goal of uniting the U.Va. community in a genuine and lasting effort to mitigate its environmental impact. Such an effort is, and will continue to be, the product of education and innovative collaboration by the many creative thinkers on Grounds.


Stay Updated

To begin, there are a few developments on the information sharing front: first off, I completely revamped the Dining section of the UVa Sustainability website, as it hadn't been updated in close to a year and a half. Click here for the update, and to check out all the work Dining is already doing to further sustainability. The link to a pdf of our sustainability brochure will still take you to an outdated brochure, but my student Sustainability Intern, Laura Moynihan, is working on that updating project.

Secondly, the Green Dining page on the UVa Dining website still needs its own overhaul, but step one of that process has been to embed a Green Dining events calendar onto the page. Click here to see the calendar (or just check out the side bar on this blog, as I also have calendar events streaming on here). Laura has also created a Green Dining flickr page that will hopefully soon be linked to the webpage; in the meantime, click here to see some Green Dining and related pictures.

Last week I went out to The Local Food Hub for a tour of their warehouse facility and an exciting chat with Director Kate Collier and Purchasing and Operations Manager Alan Moore about how UVa Dining may establish a relationship with the Food Hub. The majority of Dining's food currently comes from a large distributor, and our current method of incorporating local food into the dining halls is to encourage them to sell to us through one of our distributors (more expensive, but a verified process nonetheless). The Local Food Hub presents a unique opportunity in that they essentially are their own distributor, and need to be approved to sell to UVa Dining without an additional middleman. The Hub is, of course, also unique in that they are really helping local farmers tap into markets beyond the standard CSA/farmers market set up, and as this will hopefully ensure long-term economic viability (and farmland preservation) for these pioneering agriculturalists, I support the Food Hub's work and our involvement with them, no matter how complex the arrangement becomes. I'm currently in conversations regarding this process with sustainability directors up at corporate headquarters, so stay tuned for developments on this front...

Also last week, Dining Executive Chef Bryan Kelly and I met up with the co-owners of One Planet Coffee for a small coffee tasting and another discussion about the process of becoming an approved Aramark vendor. I'm not a coffee drinker and even I liked it! They have a great focus on purchasing organic, fairly traded and otherwise sustainably grown and harvested coffee beans. There's also the fact that Hedieh Fakhriyazdi, one of the co-owners, is an '09 UVa grad, and is quite familiar with the coffee needs of UVa students. Hedieh and Jacob are doing great things with their fledgling business, and I appreciate them reaching out and sharing their practices with us. As of now, it will be difficult to near-impossible to switch up any of Dining's current coffee arrangements, but I think it's just a matter of time before a small company (with UVa ties, no less) is able to sustainably provide quality coffee to college students.

There is a bit of a resolution to the Cavalier Daily's recent mis-quote fiasco: the Ombudsman wrote a column explaining the need for journalistic transparency and training in proper journalism practices; something I definitely support. Read the article here: "Fine Print".


The Fine Arts Cafe

Third time's the charm, apparently. That's how many tries it took to get the chalkboard menu at the Fine Arts Cafe looking according to everyone's satisfaction. We started with a student and ended up with me handwriting the menu -- twice, as the first round of chalk colors weren't splashy enough, but it's finally up to snuff.

The menu is full of some seriously good eats: a Wolf Creek Farms burger; a black bean quesadilla with Perfect Flavor queso blanco and Farm at Red Hill salsa; a grilled veggie wrap with Farm at Red Hill hummus; etc. In terms of local and sustainable offerings, the Fine Arts Cafe is head and shoulders above other Dining locations, but it also happens to be tucked away in the Architure School, which is a vast unknown to many students at UVa. I was completely ignorant of the A-School as an undergrad myself until I took my first class there the fall of my third year, so I can understand the Fine Arts Cafe not even being on students' radars. As part of our celebration of national Sustainable Campuses Day (October 21); however, we are planning to host a reception at the Fine Arts Cafe, which ought to bring in some non-Architure or Planning students over to Campbell Hall. I'm sure that once these students have their first taste of Perfect Flavor mozzarella in the Caprese Sandwich, or John Whiteside's local grass-fed beef in the Steak and Cheese sub, they won't look back.


Conferences and Journalism

Tuesday I traveled just south of Richmond to Greystone Farm, a former cattle farm that reinvented itself as an aquaculture venture (shrimp farm). The concept of farming fish is still fairly new to me, and I learned a lot about the process of raising shrimp in such a man-made environment. Aquaculture ponds are made with a large drain on the deep end (usually about three feet deeper than the shallow end), and when that drain is opened, the shrimp get pulled out to a catchment area, while the water continues flowing back to the natural pond. I'm still not completely convinced as to the long-term sustainability of this artificial method of seafood production, but it looks like an emerging market that's really going to continue to grow -- and perhaps evolve into a more environmentally friendly process.

Yesterday I went west, over to Lexington, to a Washington & Lee-hosted "Cultivating Sustainability" conference. It was an excellent day, full of enthusiastic people and helpful idea sharing. I made some great connections with Virginia farmers and other folks (including my counterpart at Virginia Tech!) working to further local foods in universities, hospitals, and K-12 environments, and even gave my first conference presentation on my experience starting Green Dining and the success it has had as a truly collaborative group of students and Dining admin.

I returned to Grounds today and after a meeting with engineering professor Ben Cohen (he'd like to get students in his sustainability course involved in helping push foward the sustainable dining agenda) experienced a mild work setback when I read the latest Cav Daily article about Dining. This one focused on Dining's shortcomes with the reusable to-go container (read here), and also caused me quite a bit of surprise when I saw quotes attributed to yours truly in the article. I recalled a student emailing me last week with a question about corn-based plastics, to which, thinking she was just a curious student, I responded via email. This email evidently became the basis for a few improperly solicited quotes. Hm. As I explained to the Ombudsman later today, not only does this reveal a disturbing lack of disclosure on the student's part, the article itself is full of inaccuracies as a result of unclear communication. I'm happy to be interviewed for Dining news stories, but I'd appreciate knowing that I was being interviewed.


Creative Thinking

Last Thursday I attended the second in a three-part series of Local Food Workshops sponsored by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Each one has a different theme and is held at a different farm throughout the state. Thursday's event was hosted by the beautiful Mountain Run Farm of Bedford County, and focused on small farm liability: "Keeping Your Business and Your Customers Safe." I found this workshop to be particularly informative and applicaple to my line of work -- although I'm not a small farmer seeking out the proper insurance policy for my livestock, I am looking to make connections with independent Virginia farmers and encourage them to potentially serve UVa students through Aramark. One of the big stumbling blocks right now to getting local food in the dining halls is the liability coverage that these farmers must have in order to become approved Aramark or Sysco vendors. It can be a complicated, expensive, and intimidating process, and I'm encouraged when I hear about the creative ways some farms are re-structuring themselves in order to ensure long-term viability.

Mountain Run Farm is an excellent example of a farm that underwent reorganization so that it could continue to be a source of safe and healthy food for its customers. Mountain Run created a cascading tier of LLCs (one for its farm store, one for its livestock/pasture, and one for the family itself); this allows the LLCs to be insulated from one another should something befall one of them. As demand from corporations and large institutions for local food continues to grow, this kind of response to liability requirements will need to be more widely adopted. I hope that my sustainability role will allow me to share success stories with other area farmers (aka potential local food suppliers).

I made it back to Grounds later that afternoon for a small reception Dining hosted for the motivated students that are pioneering the reusable to-go containers. In the spirit of sustainability (and because it should be the default -- not to mention that it just tastes better!) we served a local apple tartlet with Perfect Flavor Creamery cinnamon ice cream; I'd say the food was greatly enjoyed by all, and I got some helpful feedback about the container program. About an hour before the reception, I was struck with a thought: is Dining going to serve this treat on disposable plates? Sure enough, that was the plan, but thanks to a few last minute phone calls, I showed up at 4pm to see that the UVa Catering china was being set out to accompany the food. (Phew.) I must say, I am very glad that I checked on that, because nearly every single one of the students that came commented admiringly on our use of china. It was a fairly small gesture, but using china instead of disposables completely changed the tone of the reception. How telling that, even in our throwaway culture, there is an acknowledgement and an appreciation of the value of items that can be used by many.

While all of these positive changes are happening around me, I must take a moment and acknowledge the complications of our current food system, and the unfortunate fact that there are so many chances for miscommunication or misunderstanding or mistakes between farm and fork. It's kind of a wonder that we are able to see consistent changes sometimes. I met with a student towards the end of last week, who, in the middle of our conversation about UVa Dining, informed me that the apples in one of our dining halls had "Product of New Zealand" stickers on them. This was especially embarassing because Dining had just brokered a deal with an Albemarle County-based apple orchard and has begun sourcing 100% of its apples locally. A further look into the mess up revealed that the order had been placed with Sysco incorrectly (i.e. the check box was placed beside the cheapest available product). Whether this was out of habit, or because the employee was seeking to be most cost effective, or because the orchard deal wasn't widely publicized is all subject to speculation. Regardless, the take away message for me is two-fold: Educating the Aramark and Sysco employees that work with us will be very much an ongoing effort; and I must expect to be more vigilant about program implementation. This second realization has given rise to a new idea: perhaps I can identify a small number of students to act as the watchdog group that will report other similarly egregious examples of illogical unsustainability. It'll take all of us together to make sure that real change is being effected.


Take the Eat Local Challenge!

Today is the kick-off for the Piedmont Environmental Council's Eat Local Challenge -- a call to our community members to eat twenty-one local items over the next twenty-one days (September 21 through October 11). For directions on how to participate in the challenge, see their website for details: www.buylocalvirginia.org/challenge.

I'd be curious to see the results if PEC can find a way to quantify the economic impact that this challenge will have on the Charlottesville and Albemarle area economy. There have been several studies conducted on the positive effect that local purchasing has upon the local economy, including one from a few years back entitled Eat Fresh and Grow Jobs, Michigan that identifies the enormous potential for local job growth and financial gain from giving preference to in-state agriculture.

Anecdotally speaking, I can see that the demand for the Charlottesville City Market just keeps growing and growing, and the supply is working to keep up with all those customers. That's evident in the crowds (of customers and vendors) that the market attracts every Saturday morning, and also in the signs I saw posted this past Saturday indicating that the City Market has been extended through November 21st this year (it usually runs through the last weekend of October). In addition, the Charlottesville Holiday Market will run through mid-December as planned, but will be moved to the more accessible City Market area. The local purchasing can continue all the way into the holiday season!
To finish, here's some more nice publicity on sustainable dining from UVa Today (that has made its way to the Week in Photos on UVa's homepage!): "Dining Service Hires U.Va. Graduate as Sustainability Coordinator."


FarmVille vs. Farming

I was walking across Grounds earlier today when I overheard a group of students chatting behind me. The snippets I caught piqued my interest: "...So you harvest when you're supposed to-" "Yeah, it'll tell you that your crops are, like, 80% mature..." "-It's awesome!" Sadly, they were not referring to their work in the UVa Student Garden, but to FarmVille, a Facebook application that simulates farming with just (I guess) a few clicks of the mouse. I went online to learn a bit more about this bizarre game, and found an excessive amount of information about playing the game, as well as tricks for gaming the system. The whole thing is pretty thoroughly ridiculous, if no other reason than to show just how utterly removed many people are from real agriculture and the process of food production.

Fortunately, there's still hope for those that have simplified farming to a Facebook game. Joel Salatin, of Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc fame has already spoken on Grounds once today and is speaking once more this evening at McLeod. I've heard him speak a few times before now, but I made it over to his talk this afternoon and as usual he was fired up and evangelical about how crucial it is for us to move away from our current food system (hear, hear!).

Also coming up this Saturday is a work-morning over at the Local Food Hub's incubator farm in Louisa County. Steve and Adrianna Vargo, the folks that actually supply me with my CSA share from their family farm (Quail Spring Farm, also in Louisa), are the ones leading this series of workshops and showing volunteers how to prepare the farm for fall. Should be a fun day to get outside and help transplant/wrestle with row cover/whatever else we get our hands on.


Harvest of Plenty

Lots going on these days!

The Green Dining Committee held its first meeting of the semester last week, which largely consisted of me bringing everyone up to speed with Dining events from the summer/start of the school year (reusable containers, re-vamped Fine Arts Cafe menu, Taste of Dining, etc) and sharing details about the dizzying array of local food events happening on Grounds and beyond.

For starters, Monticello set the stage for a week chock full of events with a local focus (and flavor!) by hosting the third annual Heritage Harvest Festival at neighboring Montalto this past Saturday. The weather was perfect, the crowd was huge, and the festival was educational and tasty -- all of the organizations supporting sustainable agriculture were out in full force, offering samples, exhibits, and seminars. My friend and I migrated towards the Greenhorns table, where we found ourselves rolling up clay and seeds to make seed balls; they're encouraged for use in your personal garden, or for guerrilla gardening!

Throughout the first part of this week, each dining hall on Grounds hosted a Sustainable Station at dinner that featured an item that was procured with the Green Dining sustainable bulls-eye in mind. On Sunday, Runk had a local burger bar that served Wolf Creek Farms local, free-range and grass-fed beef. O-Hill served Fair Trade Bananas Foster on Monday, and Newcomb served organic Philly Cheese Steaks on Tuesday. Throughout each of these meals, myself or another Dining rep set up shop with the reusable to-go container table and encouraged students to sign up to participate in the program. I'm happy to report that about 100 people are on board at this point.

The Cav Daily published a front page story on the reusable containers yesterday -- read here -- on the same day that their lead editorial was a commentary stating that the containers weren't being pushed hard enough (click here for full editorial). I agree that creative publicity is always something to work on at a University whose students are constantly being bombarded with information, but I hope that the Cav Daily's article (and editorial, for that matter) bring more attention to the containers in the meantime!

I met part of the UVa Campus Kitchens Project leadership team out at Runk on Monday afternoon before my to-go container tabling stint, for a brief tour of the kitchen facilities that they will be using. Campus Kitchens is still waiting for the go-ahead from Madison House, but once they get approval it will only be about two weeks before they move into Runk and begin redistributing Dining leftovers to our local Salvation Army and Hope Community Center. I'm looking forward to having that program up and running.

Speaking of programs that are still down the road, I spent most of yesterday morning out at Morven Farm, a nearly 2000 acre property donated to the UVa Foundation by John Kluge about ten years ago. Morven is a stunning piece of land a few miles past Monticello, and I was fortunate enough to receive a tour of the historic 1820 plantation home, the formal gardens, and the Japanese garden during my visit. The UVa Foundation currently rents out some of the land to local farmers, mostly for soybean or other commodity crop production, but there is a tentative consideration of incorporating education and student involvement in some sort of agricultural capacity at Morven. A small group of students are actively working to have an independent study course out at Morven in the spring, which will hopefully get the ball rolling on that student involvement aspect. I look forward to returning to Morven soon, and to seeing what direction this relationship will take.

On a personal level (but still food-related -- actually, my personal and professional interest in local food can essentially be considered one and the same...) I participated in a lively -- not to mention delicious -- cooking class yesterday evening over at JABA, Charlottesville's very proactively local food friendly senior center. The attendees self selected into three groups to work simultaneously on three different items: fresh tomato marinara sauce, caponata (a mediterranean eggplant-based vegetable dish), and fig & ginger preserves. I helped to prepare the preserves, which turned out quite nicely! Best of all, we sat down together and ate the fruits of our labor at the end of class. I wonder if students would be interested if something like this came to Grounds...

All of these events and more give me a good feeling about what Dining can accomplish in terms of sustainability this year. I'm lucky to have my current problem of deciding which initiative to focus on first! We are all certainly fortunate indeed to be a part of a community that has such a vibrant focus on sustainable agriculture.



It's been a whirlwind week -- I spent much of last week away from my desk, either tabling for reusable to-go containers or at various meetings. Tabling successfully kicked off with the inaugural Taste of Dining event: we had a few local food producers and processors present, and even a big biofuel-run bus that traveled around the midwest this summer, educating the locals about our flawed food system (see: nourish(meant)). The evening was very festive and fun.

The tabling is going slowly but surely; I'm excited to see more and more students using their reusable boxes in O-Hill each day. As with any new program, though, there are some kinks to still be worked through, and to that end I'm working more concertedly to ensure that the employees are on board and that there isn't any lingering confusion about what to do with the key cards, or the dirty containers, or the $7 deposit, and so on and so forth. Fingers crossed that things go smoothly in the coming weeks...!


Cavalier Daily Editorial

The Cav Daily's lead editorial is about my new position. Here's the online version. I'd say the tone was cautiously optimistic -- I plan to prove them correct.

I had a great meeting today with Ayisha Memon, leader of the UVA chapter of the Campus Kitchens Project. CKP is a national organization that re-distributes excess food from institutional dining halls to those in the community that have a need for it; i.e. a most logical of middlemen. UVA Dining is backing the local CKP chapter and providing kitchen space for any additional preparation that may need to occur before the food can be served. UVA Campus Kitchens is waiting for a few final logistics to fall into place before it can officially get underway, but at this point all the legwork is finished and the green light is expected in a matter of weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing Campus Kitchens step in to fill a much-needed re-distribution role here in Charlottesville.


Cavalier Daily Article & Taste of Dining

UVA's student paper, the Cavalier Daily, has a nice write-up of my new position and the impetus behind creating it in today's paper. The article can be found online here.

The Cav Daily's original plan was to run the story in Tuesday's paper, but luckily they could shuffle things around because I was unavailable to interview on Monday -- I was actually at the Activities Fair, tabling for Dining, with a special focus on showing off the snazzy, just-arrived reusable to-go containers. A few students that stopped by actually asked if they could sign up to participate in the program right then and there, which I took to be a good sign!

Sign-up for the reusable to-go container program actually begins this Saturday, August 29th: Dining is hosting a special event on the O-Hill lawn from 5-9. Called Taste of Dining, this event will feature samples of the fare available at Dining's various eateries around Grounds, prizes, entertainment, etc -- and the grand roll-out of our reusable to-go containers. Stop by to see with your own eyes...


National Community Gardening Week

Happy National Community Gardening Week! That's right, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack declared August 23-29 to be National Community Gardening Week in an effort to connect Americans with their food source and the land that provides it.

As quoted in the USDA press release, Vilsack states that "Community gardens provide numerous benefits including opportunities for local food production, resource conservation, and neighborhood beautification... But they also promote family and community interaction and enhance opportunities to eat healthy, nutritious foods. Each of these benefits is something we can and should strive for." Charlottesville is lucky indeed to already be home to a plethora of community gardens:
  • Charlottesville City Parks and Recreation. This department has set aside plots in Azalea Park and Meadowcreek Gardens (see picture) to be used by Charlottesville community members.
  • Garden of Goodness. The Quality Community Council (QCC) founded several urban gardens with the goal of educating and engaging low-income Charlottesville residents.
  • Hope Community Center. This local community center started a garden this summer for its financially distressed clientele, including some of the homeless men that patronize Hope's day shelter.
  • St. Paul's Community Garden. St. Paul's Memorial Church, on the Corner near UVA, also began a garden this summer with the intent of fostering a cooperative relationship between the church members and the low-income neighborhood in which the garden is located.
  • UVA Community Garden. UVA students hopped on the community garden bandwagon last year and secured funding and a site to plant a garden in order to educate the UVA community about the importance of local food.
  • Hereford Urban Mini-Farm. Hereford Residential College has also started its own community garden on Grounds. Hereford residents have been involved in the planning, harvesting, and maintenance of this garden.
I encourage all of you Charlottesville residents to check out one, some, or all of these wonderful community gardens this week and celebrate the food and healthy acreage that really makes a community of those areas' residents.


C-ville Weekly Blog Post

C-ville Weekly's environmentally conscious blog, Green Scene, did a small (but positive!) piece yesterday on my new position. Check it out here.

As mentioned, my first major project is to roll out reusable to-go containers in all dining locations around Grounds. The containers are made of hardy, dishwasher-safe plastic, and will hopefully catch on reasonably fast. Dining replaced all of its styrofoam containers with biodegradable products about a year and a half ago, and while biodegradable material is a big step up from styrofoam, our composting operation unfortunately cannot accept those to-go containers. This means that the biodegradable containers still end up in the landfill, where decomposition is virtually nonexistent.

While a reusable container means additional water needed for washing, it also means less spent on purchasing disposable items and less material added to the waste stream. I think moving away from a disposable mentality will generally appeal to students -- of course, the trick is getting them to remember to bring back their dirty container after it has been used.


In The Beginning

Hello, dear readers! I'd like to introduce myself as the University of Virginia's first Sustainability Coordinator for Dining Services. This position has been in the works for some time now, but all the pieces fell nicely into place this summer and I have officially come on board just this week. There will be time later to look ahead to the goals I have in mind for this job, but first, some background:

I was a third year undergrad at UVA in the fall of 2005 when I signed up to take an introductory Urban Planning class as required by my interdisciplinary Environmental Thought & Practice major. Up until then I had taken my fair share of environmental science courses, but this was the first time I was really discussing and thinking about the intersection of humans and their environment in such a tangible, through-systemic-change-and-design-we-can-improve-our-world, up close and personal way. When I say that it really hit home, I mean it really hit home. I found myself with some funding to attend a Sustainable Campuses symposium at the University of Maryland, and came back convinced that not only were universities responsible for leading the way on this new sustainability concept, but that the way to make the biggest impact (or to make the least impact on the environment, if you want to look at it that way) was by greening a school's dining operation.

I had made a few contacts at UVA Dining prior to this eye-opening conference, and followed up with them in the hopes that they'd be willing and able to turn things around. There was willingness, yes, but also a conviction that the changes initially be student-driven. With this in mind, I began organizing a series of food waste audits in O-Hill and Newcomb, the two major dining halls on Grounds. These audits would be a good way to educate students about the role they all played in Dining's contribution to the landfill. Rather than putting a finished plate or tray on a conveyor belt so it could be whisked away, out of sight and out of mind, to the nebulous washroom, students rounded the corner and were confronted with a small band of students (my gracious volunteers) at a table in front of the conveyor belt. The volunteers personally took each tray and plate and scraped the leftover food into a trash bag that was weighed frequently. This project generated discussion and, as hoped, a bit more awareness that we all continue to impact the food cycle far beyond merely swiping into a dining hall, eating, and leaving.

With this initial positive reception, and anecdotal evidence from the diswashers that removing trays greatly reduced the amount of waste coming into the washroom, my group of students and dining administrative staff (that I had taken to calling Green Dining) agreed to hold a trayless dining hall day. The day was not a success, as lack of trays was seen as a huge inconvenience, and I learned what it felt like to see my name in the student paper's (negative take on Trayless Tuesday) lead editorial of the day.

Happily, this was only a minor setback in the grand scheme of things. Since then, trays have been officially taken out of dining halls -- of note is the fact that this initiative was strongly supported by students the second time around -- and a pilot composting program begun out of one of UVA's dining halls. I received funding to host a web conference, "Sustainable Dining for Higher Education", in the fall of 2007 and found a new focus for Green Dining. During that webinar we were introduced to the bull's eye concept, or the idea that each school should prioritize its own individual sustainable dining efforts. After a series of meetings in which the group gathered to discuss our own school's needs, UVA Dining has now implemented its own bull's eye to determine purchasing guidelines.

By the time of that web conference, I had already graduated, and had spent the interim months shopping at the Charlottesville City Market, participating in it myself, and getting to know the farmers that grew such fresh and delicious produce. I was really moving away from participating in a conventional food system, as part of a desire to both reduce my environmental impact and to be involved in the community of local agriculture. It began to make more and more sense for me to learn first-hand about these sustainable agriculture practices that I was lauding so loudly.

In April of 2008 I began an eight month term as an intern at Waterpenny Farm in (very) rural central Virginia. Despite the physical and emotional challenges to be had in spades, I gained an incredible wealth of knowledge. From seeding to transplanting, from mulching to hoeing, from harvesting to selling at market, and eventually from winding down the season to cleaning up all the work we had put into the fields, I learned about all aspects of organic farming. Happily, despite the tough nature of the work, my internship ultimately only reinforced my desire to be involved in the sustainable agriculture field; particularly in a way that would allow me to connect the supply of local produce with the growing demand of a community or an institution (perhaps, say, a large university dining operation?)

I expect to use my past experiences -- as a student, as a farmer -- to great advantage in this new coordinator position. I hope to integrate these seemingly disparate lifestyles into part of a cohesive and sustainable food system; after all, no matter who we are or where we're from, we all need to eat. And if we can eat in a way that improves our personal health, the health of the environment, and even the health of the relationships that we keep, then sustainability has been realized.

Check back to stay up to date on the many sustainable developments to come!