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.

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