by Linda Sheridan
A Mason 4-VA grant initiative funded the Sustainable Foods Systems Symposium, held in May at the Smithsonian Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal. The two-day symposium brought 39 participant faculty and staff from 4-VA members Mason, James Madison University, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. In presentations and break-out sessions, participants across the academic spectrum discussed climate change and how it will impact future food choices. Other issues discussed: the importance of local place-based food, food deserts, partnership with local farms and the possibilities of a joint 4-VA member food hub in a central location of the state. A food hub would create efficiencies in cost, delivery and food storage, and promote community engagement. The symposium illustrated Mason’s commitment to sustainability. In 2014, Mason became the first university in Virginia to achieve a Gold Rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Sustainable stewardship of the earth’s economic and natural resources is also a core value in the Mason Strategic Plan.
The 4-VA grant’s principal investigator is New Century College’s Sustainability Studies Fellow, Associate Professor Andrew Wingfield. He is the founding director of the Environmental and Sustainable Studies BA at Mason. Andrew notes, “Virginia’s state universities are poised to play a leading role in creating a more robust and sustainable local food system throughout the Commonwealth. The 4-VA Sustainable Food Systems Symposium provided an opportunity for participants to learn about the excellent work our universities are already doing in sustainable food systems research and curriculum development, campus food production, and green dining. The conversations started at the symposium will, I hope, lead to fruitful cross-university collaborations in the future.”
The symposium also brought together for the first time 4-VA member dining and operations staff to exchange ideas. Mason’s President’s Park greenhouse, for example, partners with Sodexo to provide hydroponic lettuce, micro greens and herbs to the dining halls on campus. Doni Ward, greenhouse coordinator, discussed the importance of local food. “The chefs are so excited because they never get food this fresh. To them, local is a 240 mile radius, so this is the most local food that campus has ever eaten.” The produce is served in the dining halls the same day of harvest. The symposium gave Ward an opportunity for her to learn about what other 4-VA institutions are doing to promote sustainability. “The universities are really at the forefront of those new systems that are coming into play to ensure our future, what is necessary for our future – food security and sustainability.”
Feedback from symposium participants demonstrate the passion and commitment that they brought to the event. Susan Clark, PhD, Associate Professor, Sustainable Food Systems, at Virginia Tech noted, “It was affirming to learn more about the diverse and unique approaches and practices others are using to engage sustainable food systems work on their campuses. This conference afforded us the opportunity to creatively think about how we can collectively collaborate in the future in new and innovative ways around sustainable food systems initiatives, curriculum, extracurricular activities, and dining services partnerships.”
Michelle Hesse, PhD, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at James Madison, added, “I learned that we have endless resources when our 4 (4-VA) institutions join together around the table. We are stronger in numbers when we band together and tackle a common cause/ problem. As we birthed ideas and shared stories it was amazing to watch how at one institution a concern/ problem could be solved using another institution’s resources. Food is a common language for everyone. Our lives revolve around food. So to couch the discussion of sustainability around our food system is appropriate and applicable to all. To move this conversation forward beyond the 4VA members who attended this symposium, it is necessary that we establish common ground and food is that platform.”
Linda Sheridan is the Mason 4-VA deputy campus coordinator.