Delaney Buskard, UVA Office for Sustainability Student Employee

Food. We love it. We need it. We revolve our life around it and we can really only get it from our Earth. And even with that importance, we do not always treat it like it’s our lifeline. In the United States alone, 30% to 40% of food is wasted; this accounts for millions of tons of food that gets thrown away each year. Not only is that extremely costly, but the waste that is produced contributes to energy waste from processes such as growing, packing, and transportation. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as there are ways we can mitigate our personal impact through food. Plant-based eating is a great way to decrease environmental impact since raising livestock requires large amounts of deforestation and greenhouse gases. But do not feel like a bad citizen of the world if you are not eating plant-based: education is also extremely important because mindfulness and understanding where your food comes from can help you make more informed decisions about your diet. 

Because food holds so much power, UVA has been working to harness that potential to meet our sustainability goals described in our 2020-2030 Sustainability Plan. Back in 2015, the Sustainable Food Strategy Task Force was created to meet our 2016-2020 Sustainability Plan’s goals. In 2020, it was renamed the Sustainable Food Collaborative (SFC) in order to better reflect its goals. These specific goals included increasing sustainable food options, reducing food and single-use waste, developing policy to address food inequalities, and increasing awareness and education so the UVA community can make more informed choices about their food. Since then, UVA has seen dramatic preventions when it comes to waste and carbon emissions related to food production and consumption. Additionally, the collaborative has worked to address issues of racial inequality, environmental justice, and those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Because food-related goals are a large part of the plan, UVA Dine has been working to encourage plant-based eating in dining halls, as detailed in a previous blog post about green dining. This has been done through the promotion of special days such as “meatless Monday” and “plant-forward Friday.” However, in addition to the consumption side, UVA has been working on sourcing local ingredients and spreading awareness about farm-to-table eating. Many know of the Morven Kitchen Garden, where UVA sourced over 800 pounds of food in 2019. But an even more local example of this is the UVA Community Garden, located just across the street from the Observatory Hill Dining Hall. In the winter months, veggies such as spinach, arugula, radishes, lettuce and cilantro can be found in the garden. With the upcoming warmer weather, spring crops include tomatoes, a variety of herbs, and native flowers. Volunteers are encouraged to harvest available produce for themselves, as well as delegate some to donate to the UVA Food Pantry. The garden usually has workdays on Tuesdays and Thursdays that take place from 12:30-1:30 PM, but due to UVA’s new community guidelines, participation has been temporarily halted. Should guidelines change and small in-person events resume, you can sign up for a volunteer spot here

On a bright sunny day with a clear blue sky, produce and flowers are on display in raised planter boxes in a garden-like set up. Up close, we see a small orange-yellow flower and other herbs around it in the background.
Photo from the UVA Community Garden (courtesy of Elizabeth Williams)

In my interview with Elizabeth Williams, manager of the community garden and active member of our sustainability community, we discussed UVA’s Plant-Based Strategy Working Group (PBSWG), of which she is a part of. Their mission statement describes how PBSWG “is a sustainability group dedicated to promoting plant-based food on grounds. We reside under the UVA Sustainable Food Collaborative and work with faculty and staff from UVA Dining, the Office for Sustainability, and more to make real change at UVA.” The UVA Student Garden originally existed as a student-led CIO but has since transitioned to exist under the PBSWG. Everyone is encouraged to join, even if you are not currently eating a plant-based diet. 

Elizabeth, a Green Dining Student Intern who is focussed on sustainable agriculture, was asked to join PBSWG last spring. She also works at Morven farms to harvest fresh produce and deliver it to the dining halls so it can be used in main dishes or at the Sustainable Taste Cart at Newcomb on Wednesday nights. Generally, student members are also part of other green CIOs, such as Bad Vegan, Veggies of Virginia, and staff from the UVA Office for Sustainability and Green Dining. 

Last semester, they launched an Instagram account and a plant-starter kit, which is pictured below, to help students start cultivating their own produce. Check out their Instagram page for plant-based recipes, information about plant-forward eating, and event announcements, especially during Earth week/month! To get started, note that Elizabeth’s favorite plant-based recipe is a super filling vegan chili, and she recommends fresh cilantro, which she sometimes uses some from the community garden! 

On a brick surface, a box of fake carrots made of paper sit in a wooden garden box, next to a red planter, and information about the eating plant based and the PBSWG.
Plant-starter kit from the PBSWG (courtesy of Elizabeth Williams)