Institute for Environmental Negotiation

Empowering communities to create shared solutions

Sustainable Food Strategy Task Force

 Photos courtesy of Stacey Evans (left) and Nina Morris (right).

The IEN is working with the Sustainable Food Strategy task force to implement the University of Virginia's Sustainable Food Action Plan (2016-2020) goals relating to food. Founded in 2017, the Task Force is chaired by Tanya Denckla Cobb, Director of IEN, and includes a broad array of representatives concerned and interested in food and its impacts: UVA Dining (Aramark), UVA Health Systems Dining (Morrison), Darden Dining (Compass), the Office for Sustainability, Environmental Resources, Morven Kitchen Garden, the Nitrogen Footprint project, Green Dining, Greens to Grounds, School of Medicine, the Department of Politics, and the UVA Food Collaborative. Meeting once a month, the task force has been developing strategies to develop and facilitate implementation of the five Sustainability Plan food goals, which are to: 

  1. Annually increase the percentage of sustainable foods and beverages available on grounds; 
  2. Reduce food waste and single-use servings sent to the landfill by 2030, in alignment with overall UVA waste goals;
  3. Reduce the water and energy impacts of dining operations;
  4. Increase students, staff and faculty awareness of sustainable food systems and seek to translate this heightened awareness into informed choices;
  5. Collaborate within UVA and with the region, bringing together faculty, staff, students, and diningoperations to advance sustainable food systems in the broader community.

One of the most significant decisions embodied in the Sustainability Plan is that UVA will use the nationally accepted definition and metrics for sustainable food developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Sustainability, Tracking and Rating System (STARS). Before setting specific targets for sustainable food purchases, the task force agreed that the first step was to establish UVA Dining’s (Aramark) current baseline of sustainable food purchases according to AASHE STARS

The next step was for Dining to implement small pilots and changes, which it has been doing over the past year with more pop-up food stations featuring local and sustainable foods, several new partnerships with Charlottesville-based producers, a sustainable meat burrito station, a farmers market event, and tweaking the Fine Arts Café menu to include more local and sustainable foods. The task force will know in winter 2018 how much change these efforts produced in the AASHE STARS rating, and will then set targets for annual increases in sustainable food purchasing. The task force is hopeful that UVA Health Systems and Darden dining will soon follow suit by establishing their baseline purchases in the AASHE STARS system, to allow measurement of changes over time. 

Numerous other efforts are underway to advance the university’s food goals. UVA Dining is expected to join the national James Beard Foundation Blended Burger program, launching it sometime in the fall. The Nitrogen Footprint project, funded by the Sustainability Committee, will continue its study of the effects of labelling on student purchasing behavior. A student survey will be launched at the beginning of the semester to assess to what extent, and in what ways, students think about sustainability in the context of their diningplans and eating patterns. Funded by the Sustainability Committee and led by Paul Freedman, associate chair and professor of politics, the survey will assess the importance of specific sustainability criteria for food purchases, and the extent to which labels, signage or other information can shape perceptions and choices. 

The Food Film Forum, now entering its sixth year, in the coming academic year will feature a series of five documentaries concerning how food impacts community, health, food justice, and the environment. Each film is followed by a lively discussion between a panel of experts and the audience. 

As part of this effort, IEN coordinated for the task force a symposium, funded by the UVA Sustainability Committee, to explore Virginia University Collaboration for Sustainable Food Procurement. Held on December 8, 2017, this symposium brought together representatives from UVA dining services, the sustainability office, interested faculty and student organizations, will engage with their counterparts from other Virginia universities such as George Mason, James Madison and Virginia Tech. You can view the final report from the symposium here

The symposium offers the possibility for an array of outcomes, including 1) increased understanding of the barriers and possible strategies to overcome the barriers to university purchase of sustainable foods; 2) an action research agenda to be pursued by participating universities, individually or jointly; 3) specific partnerships between institutions to work together to develop a supply chain for specific sustainable foods; 4) pilot projects that may be undertaken singly or jointly; or even 5) commitments by individual participants to work together to advance the goals of increasing university sustainable food purchases.

With funding from the UVA Bicentennial Commission, the task force will also host a two-day symposium in Spring 2018 on UVA and Transformations of Local Agricultural Systems Today and Tomorrow: Growing From Jefferson’s Founding Values Into Culture, Equity, Science, and Stewardship. The symposium will have use different components of discussions, visioning, and film to engage scholars and the full UVA community in using history to envision UVA’s future of food systems as it can be expressed through scholarly research, curriculum, and applied practice. 

Watch for more to come, as the food task force plans for more sustained actions to realize the university’s sustainability goals for food! The food task force works under the auspices of the Environmental Stewardship Subcommittee (ESS), a subcommittee of the University Committee on Sustainability. ESS promotes and enables environmental stewardship via student, staff, and faculty engagement and direct action on Grounds. There are currently 13 working groups and five task forces within the subcommittee.