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...!