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.
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