By Slow Food USA Intern Melissa Rosenberg
In 2007, Virginia Tech Dining Services (VTDS) was ranked #1 for Best Campus Foods by the Princeton Review, getting high marks for student satisfaction. Recognized for its outstanding work by food industry peers, VTDS received the prestigious 2009 Ivy Award, bestowed each year upon exceptional food service operations.
Hired as the VTDS Sustainability Coordinator in October of 2008, Andy Sarjahani jumpstarted an effort to support sustainable food systems by monitoring every aspect of its food services. In a short time, Andy and his team have implemented a vast array of initiatives: removing trays to decrease food waste, composting, and working with distributors, non-profits and local farmers in a variety of Farm-to-College programs.
In addition, VTDS began growing its own herbs in a garden operated by the Horticulture Department and switched from Pennsylvania-raised factory farm eggs to Virginia-raised organic cage-free eggs. While somewhat more expensive, the food does more than taste delicious: VTDS’ $8 million budget enables the university to significantly impact the state food and agriculture economy as it feeds 34,000 hungry stomachs each day.
In March, statewide attention was drawn to the changes in VTDS buying practices after the Humane Society of the United States issued a press release celebrating the changes. Since then, staff members have come under pressure from such agribusiness groups as the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Poultry Federation, among several others. The lobbyists are asking the university to scale back or cease its work on promoting awareness and access to sustainable food.
As a land-grant institution, VT has close ties to the state’s agriculture industry, including the poultry business, which represents a third of Virginia’s commodity production. The university relies on the agriculture industry for a significant share of its funding. Lobbyists claim, the research VTDS cited to substantiate its sustainable initiatives, conflicts with research conducted at the university’s own College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Despite pressure from the VT President’s office and the VT Poultry Science Department to switch to caged eggs, VTDS continues to source cage-free local organic eggs.
To protect against incidents of agribusiness pressure, Andy strongly suggests that students take an active role. At VT, Andy co-founded the Sustainable Food Corps, a registered student organization that promotes economic development within the community and supports a resilient, sustainable, local food system. He has handed over the reins to a diverse group of students, from a variety of academic disciplines.
The Corps recently gathered students on campus to participate in a photo petition supporting sustainable food. It has also developed a food diversion and recovery mission, taking left over food from the dining halls to food pantries and food banks. In the coming days, the Corps will begin work on a student-run farm.
Andy urges students on other campuses to find a champion in a faculty or staff member to galvanize the formation of a student organization. As an alternative to starting from scratch, Slow Food on Campus provides a structure to assist students with organizing initiatives to support their local food systems.
Photos courtesy of Virginia Tech Sustainable Food Corps.