Dishing locally

University administrators should follow the health system

Hospital food is notoriously unappetizing, but the offerings available in the three dining halls at the University don't fare much better - at least to some students.

But the University Health System is looking to change that perception by overhauling and incorporating local produce in its daily cafeteria menu as part of a partnership with the Local Food Hub, which gets local produce from small family farms within 100 miles of Charlottesville. Dale Haskins, health system purchasing manager, is featured in a Local Food Hub YouTube video titled, "Finding a Cure for Hospital Food," which highlights the changes being made in health system cafeterias. Haskins oversees the hospital's $600,000 produce budget, which is used to serve 1,300 patients and 2,500 hospital cafeteria meals daily, according to the video. Moreover, the video states that these efforts are part of a commitment to local farms, community and economy. Essentially, the idea is to bring in local produce for the cafeteria's menus to dispel negative notions about hospital food - assuming patrons correlate local food with quality. The video even highlights the economic benefits of buying local produce, noting that a dollar spent locally can have two to four times the economic benefits of a dollar spent elsewhere. This is certainly a good first step, but the health system must set clear benchmarks from the get-go to evaluate the program's progress and for it to be successful.

This new program in the University Health System also should draw attention to the food quality in the University's dining halls. After all, the health system comprises about half of the University - in terms of its allocation of financial resources and the revenue it generates - so it seems most efficient for each facet of the University community to take ideas and learn from the other. And although both institutions are structured differently and have dissimilar missions, both often confront the same kinds of challenges and offer comparable services. Additionally, both the University and its health system are overseen by the Board of Visitors and top University administrators, meaning that avenues exist for more collaboration between the two.

University Dining Services embraced the sustainability movement last August by hiring Kendall Singleton as sustainability coordinator, but it has implemented only a few noticeable changes. The initiative to provide reusable to-go boxes in dining halls, for example, has not caught on with most students.

Certainly, serving local food comes with the all the positive attention that offering organic produce does. But ultimately it's the final product that matters: Is the food actually appetizing? Dining Services does an admirable job with the resources allotted to it, but administrators must have a standard for comparison. After all, it does not work to the University's advantage that two neighboring institutions - Virginia Tech and James Madison University - are renowned among high school seniors for the quality of their dining fare. In essence, far from being a trivial concern, food quality holds considerable weight among perspective students because it contributes to the overall image of the University. The food a college serves sends a message about how much that school values its students, particularly undergraduates.

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