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!