Nurturing sustainability through local food

U.Va. dining, professors, students consider sustainable practices

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Greens to Grounds holds box pick-ups for students every Friday at Mad Bowl. 

Courtesy Chris Porter

As the University moves towards more sustainable practices across the board, several faculty and students have started to focus on bringing local foods to Grounds. University Dining, the University Committee on Sustainability and Greens to Grounds all focus on developing a growing awareness of sustainability and its impact on the greater Charlottesville community and environment.

Local Produce in Dining Halls

Although the University dining halls have always sourced local food, they have been working to grow the program in recent years, leading to items in dining halls increasingly being marketed as “local.” Specifically, University Dining not only seeks to source more fresh, local foods, but also to make sure students are aware of these options.

Foods from local farms in the dining halls are tagged with grower’s profile — which includes where and from whom the produce was sourced — so students can become more responsible consumers and learn where their foods are grown, said Samantha Jameson, the University Dining Hall Sustainability Coordinator, in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Jameson said locally sourced foods are usually from within a 250 mile radius around Charlottesville.

The types of locally sourced foods within the dining halls differ based on the season. This spring season, the dining halls have offered local strawberries, apples, leeks, beets and greens. Towards the end of the year, they will begin locally sourcing squash, zucchini, tomatoes, corn and peaches.

“Local foods have the added benefit of supporting the local economy, and ensuring the menus are fresh and seasonal,” Jameson. “[Local purchasing] is also a reflection of our commitment to the University’s sustainability goals, and the greater Charlottesville community.”

Third-year College student Monica Kuo said she has noticed Runk Dining Hall hosts events publicizing their use of local foods.

“I think it’s important to get locally grown [foods] because those are fresh and don’t have any, or very few, added preservatives,” Kuo said. “It also really helps out the local farmers.”

Similarly, third-year Engineering student Jonathan Lee said he’s seen local foods advertised in Newcomb Dining Hall.

“I’d imagine it’s better for the environment given that there is a shorter distance to transport the food,” Lee said. “I’m sure it’s also good for local farmers and for stimulating local economies.”

Students can also find locally sourced food efforts in other places at the University.

“You can find grass-fed Virginia beef at Burrito Theory, and locally-made products from Wonderment Bakeshop & Creamery, Lumi Juice and Commonwealth Joe in retail locations,” Jameson said.

Food Sustainability and Student Involvement

Outside of the dining halls and other eateries, students are discussing the local food movement in student organizations and the classroom. University students have been a vital part of the push towards expanding the movement of locally sourced foods. For example, Green Dining is a student group that meets bi-weekly to advise the dining halls on how to move towards more sustainable practices. Furthermore, Greens to Grounds is a contracted independent organization that provides access to local foods for students.

Chris Schopper, a fourth-year College student and a member of the Greens to Grounds events team, said Greens to Grounds primarily sells boxes of fresh produce to students, but also brings farmers to Grounds and plans educational events. Schopper said the organization acts as the intermediary between the University and local farmers and artisans.

“As college students, you can really become independent consumers,” Schopper said. “We are trying to educate people on how their habits can have a huge impact. This is recognizing that there is a broken system of food production — there can be a lot that can be done to make it more sustainable for the consumer and the environment.”

As both Greens to Grounds and the dining halls strive to improve their individual sustainability practices, several actors around the University are collaborating to improve sustainability at the University.

Assoc. Architecture Prof. Phoebe Crisman serves as the co-chair of the University Committee on Sustainability, which is composed of faculty, staff, Dining representatives and Transportation Services representatives. Crisman is also the director of the Global Studies track in Environments and Sustainability.

“[The Committee] look[s] broadly at sustainability across academics, teaching, research operations and the foods that we eat and serve on Grounds,” Crisman said.

She said students can play a major role in the changes of sustainability at campus, and food is on the forefront of the minds of her students because it is something they have a “direct connection” with.

“Students have the power to bring about changes, and probably the most power. And I think that students are not aware of that,” Crisman said. “You are the ones eating at the dining halls — I don’t eat at the dining halls. You’re the clients. The food providers, they’re kind of working for you.”

One way Crisman works with students on issues of sustainability is by taking on projects with the Morven Kitchen Garden, which is a community supported agriculture program run by students.

“One project that they did is they worked with a beekeeper on some of U.Va. land and the bees didn’t survive because of the excessive pesticides used by [large-scale] soybean farmers nearby,” Crisman said. “These students are working on an idea to use some of that land, and how to make it more productive for U.Va., to help incubate lower level farming.”

Besides making the University’s future more sustainable, the projects remind students that sustainability is historically ingrained within the University.

“When you think about Jefferson’s initial image for the university, all of those gardens were kitchen gardens right here at U.Va,” Crisman said. “[My students are] interested in the history of this agrarian academic village, and how we might return to this someday.”

While there are visible changes towards more sustainable practices, there is still limited information about them among the community.

“I think there’s a general sense that people think that they should eat local,” Schopper said. “I’m not sure, [however], if the average university student recognizes the importance. Our focus is to highlight the importance of eating local and how your food is produced.”

Progressing Sustainability Awareness and Action

Though various groups on Grounds are making a conscious effort to source food locally, understandings of why this is important to sustainability and human health are limited.

“Most people think that sustainability is just about environmental sustainability and of resources, and it is about that,” Crisman said. “But sustainability literature talks about the environment, equity — which is the social equity part — economy and policy.”

Sustainability practices, such as sourcing locally produced foods, help raise awareness of how the foods consumed have an impact on the environment and challenge students’ eating habits.

“The lower on the food chain that we eat, the lower amount of resources are used and are impacted,” Crisman said. “If you do a direct comparison of how much water, energy and nitrogen by the production of, say, a pound of meat versus a pound of potato, there’s a huge difference.”

Buying local produce from small farms also yields economic and social benefits, such as a greater sense of community between city business people and rural farmers. However, the connection between local food and health benefits is unclear.

Though there is a common conception that locally sourced food is healthier than supermarket alternatives, local produce does not directly translate to healthy, pesticide-free vegetables and fruits. However, in most cases, there is an incentive for local foods to be organic and higher quality.

“[Local growers] have this whole ethos about agriculture,” Crisman said. “They can’t compete with factory farms, [and hence], they’re growing more specialty products.”

As customers of local farmers, the University is becoming increasingly involved in the greater community movement towards sustainable practices. Furthermore, student involvement continues to play a large role in this shift.

“U.Va. Dining works to expand this effort year over year,” Jameson said. “The most important part of this is the continued support and collaboration with students.” 

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