Delaney Buskard, UVA Office for Sustainability Student Employee

When I came to UVA in the fall of 2017, food was one of the last things on my mind. I was thinking more along the lines of which classes I could handle, how to make new friends, and maybe even a football game or two. And now, as a fourth year who is reflecting on my time at UVA, I realize how interconnected food was to it all.

Similarly to many first years, I was very overwhelmed when I entered one of UVA’s dining halls. There were so many options and it was always difficult to decide what I was in the mood for. My usual strategy was to take a full lap around to gather all of the evidence and then make a decision while I grabbed a glass of water. Something that I first noticed was that even though there were so many options, I found myself limiting myself to specific types of foods. I rarely ate enough “healthy foods” and almost wouldn’t dare try any “alternative options” or specials; I realized that I was scared to branch out. At the same time, I was enrolled in the Food, Society, and Sustainability Forum curriculum, led by esteemed Professors Paul Freedman and Manuel Lerdeau. In this course, and throughout the entire curriculum, I learned so much about topics I had never heard of: food deserts, nitrogen footprint, and how to make my own kombucha. This curriculum solidified my plans to have a career in sustainability in some capacity and encouraged me to really think about what I was putting into my body, as well as how food had an effect on the environment. This led me to become a student employee at UVA’s Office for Sustainability (OFS) - I was excited to learn more about how UVA, who is in charge of what thousands of people consume, was tackling healthy and sustainable eating in its dining halls.

One of my first and most memorable experiences with UVA’s green dining efforts was in the fall of 2018: I was in my first semester of working with OFS and I volunteered to staff a zero-waste station in the President’s Box. Not only would there be a possible appearance of Jim Ryan, but better yet, I would be able to educate fans about how everything in the room was either compostable or recyclable. I hadn’t been to many zero-waste events prior to this and was looking forward to seeing if and how UVA fans were serious about their environmental impact. In short: many were not, but there was always at least one or two people that expressed gratitude for the work that we were doing. Looking back on this experience, I cherish moments like these, and not just because I got to help THE Peyton Manning sort his food waste.

As we look toward the future of green dining at UVA, the best person to speak to is UVA Dine’s new Sustainability Coordinator, Caroline Baloga. A recent graduate from the University of Michigan, Caroline brings a new perspective and passion for working towards UVA’s sustainability goals. While at Michigan, she worked at the Campus Farm as a Student Manager, as the Sustainability Intern for Michigan’s dining program, and as a Research Analyst for the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. These positions fostered her interest in sustainable food systems and how they can be implemented at a university level. After joining UVA Dine in July, she is most looking forward to strengthening collaborations between UVA Dine and the larger UVA and Charlottesville communities. With all of the progress UVA has made so far, and with many engaged advocates in different sectors or departments at UVA, she is also excited to work with local organizations and build up Charlottesville’s sustainable and equitable food systems.

When asked about what sustainable dining means to her, she said that “sustainable dining is about nourishing the relationship between food, the environment, and people, and realizing that all these components are interconnected… Knowing the story of how your food was produced, where it was grown, who cooked it, where the leftover waste goes, etc. is so important.” And in order to achieve these sustainable dining ideals, Caroline continues to make sustainability a top priority, even during COVID-19. With the decline of in-person dining at UVA’s dining rooms and increased demand of to-go options, there has also been an increase of single-use materials. This has proven to be a challenge for working towards UVA Dine’s sustainability goals, especially waste reduction. UVA Dine has been able to offer mostly compostable products, however, single-use compostable ware has been in high demand across the country and composting facilities have been overwhelmed. Fortunately, UVA Dine has been reintegrating reusable china and is planning to reintroduce reusable to-go containers as soon as possible. Additionally, Caroline is working with the Sustainable Food Collaborative (SFC), previously known as the Sustainable Food Strategy Task Force, to draft an Action Plan for 2030. Some of the plans include expanding to more local and diverse suppliers and incorporating more plant-based options into the dining rooms’ meal plans.

One of the last things that I spoke to Caroline about was her recommendations for how we can dine sustainably on an individual level. World Vegetarian Day, which was in October, highlighted the abilities of our chefs at UVA Dine to make creative and delicious plant-forward meals. Dishes included “Crabbyless Crab Cakes, Eggplant Parmesan, Buffalo Cauliflower, Mediterranean Vegetable Stackers, and Tofu Noodle Bowls.” A daily staple for Caroline is the Radicle Station at Observatory Hill Dining Hall because she can personalize her own grain or salad bowl, full of vegetables and plant-based proteins. And if you are not accessing the dining halls, she also encourages a transition to a plant-based diet at home because even a small-scale change can have a large impact.

Overall, sustainability efforts can still progress within the realm of dining, even as we adjust to our new normal. The importance of understanding how your food is produced and where it comes from is a key first step to better eating. UVA’s efforts have inspired some of my own efforts to understand food systems and how I can build up the community around me.

If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved on-Grounds (or virtually), here’s some ideas and resources that can help you get started:

  1. Volunteer with UVA’s student garden
  2. Take a food sustainability-related class
    1. Like Prof. Paul Freedman’s “PLAP 3160: Politics of Food” class that is being offered in January!
  3. Try a plant-based meal at your next trip to the dining hall. Even better, try it during lunch on Plant Forward Fridays every Friday at all 3 dining rooms!
  4. Go to the Charlottesville City Market, located near the Downtown Mall, to shop for some local produce
  5. Conduct a small waste audit of your home to get a better understanding of your habits
  6. Subscribe to the Green Dining newsletter and check-out the Green Dining website for tips about eating sustainably on grounds.