Herb garden leads the way in Virginia Tech’s sustainability efforts
BLACKSBURG, Va.—The dining program at 29,000-student Virginia Tech University recently created the position of sustainability coordinator to demonstrate to its students its commitment to sustainablity initiatives. Rick Johnson, director of housing and dining services, said the position was created because it is an important issue for students.
“The position is important to students because of what we expect it to do, which is to provide leadership to our sustainability efforts,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working for about three years on various sustainability issues. By having a person dedicated to it, we believe we can make quicker progress, respond to students more efficiently, make changes in our program quicker and really jump start our sustainability efforts.”
Rachael Budowle, sustainability coordinator, was hired this past summer and already has made headway on a number of initiatives. One of the initiatives that has just started to pay off is Dining Services’ herb garden. Budowle said the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gave Dining Services a plot of land, which was planted last spring and is just now going through its first harvest season.
“We have herbs such as chives, sage, several varieties of basil, thyme, dill and parsley,” Budowle said. “We had some Dining Services staff helping us harvest over the summer, but we’ve had a great amount of student support during the semester. We’ve had several student volunteer opportunities where students will go out to the herb garden with me and we’ll spend the afternoon or the morning harvesting, weeding and prepping in the garden. It’s a really great hands-on-learning experience for them.”
Budowle said she hopes to expand the garden to an acre during the next year so it can grow vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and greens along with the herbs. Budowle said the garden isn’t certified organic yet, but noted it has been pesticide-free for three years, which fits the requirement to become certified. The plan is to get the garden certified within the next year as the garden grows larger. As of now, the herbs have mostly been used in VT’s sustainable food concept, the Farm and Fields Project shop, which opened last spring.
“[Farms and Fields] is our flagship local and sustainable food shop on campus,” Budowle said. “Most of the herbs are going there, but they have been used in other dining centers on campus such as catering and West End Market. At Farms and Fields we’ve been using a lot of local meats and vegetables and we use organic and other sustainably raised products—the more local the better. The menu changes daily and is generally made up of entrées such as a local, all-natural pot roast with organic butternut squash.”
War on waste: Budowle said she’s also been hard at work developing a composting program. The department has its own processing and prep center that has been composting since January.
"We contract with a local composting service, which comes twice a week to collect food waste from us,” Budowle said. “Right now, they are only collecting pre-consumer waste, but we are working to begin composting at Owens Food Court next week. There we’re going to start in the back of the house and gradually move to the dish room, where we can include post-consumer waste. Over time, we’re hoping that students can have access to compost to-go materials. That’s definitely in the future. Eventually, we’d like to see all of our dining centers composting.”
Johnson said the department has tried to implement compostable disposables in the past but was always derailed by logistics.
“We’ve been exploring it for about two years now,” Johnson said. “Every time we explored it we found another complication such as the fact that most of those products come from China. Our students urged us not to do that. They said it would solve one problem but create another huge one. So we had to drop back last year and say, let’s do it the right way. I think we’re going to be very close to implementing it this year.”
Budowle added that it didn’t make much sense to switch to compostable containers without a comprehensive composting program in place.
“If the containers are not being composted, it doesn’t make sense to send those to the landfill,” Budowle said. “So we’re waiting on that. We do have recycling in all of our dining centers. We hope to launch a reusable bag in the spring and we’re examining reusable mugs. We’ve actually accomplished a lot of really cool stuff in a short period of time.”
Budowle said impacting the waste stream and building partnerships with local growers were some of the things she was most excited about when taking the position.
“I’m very excited about composting,” Budowle said. “I see us as being able to expand that during the next semester significantly. We’re also looking at diverting edible food waste to food pantries if possible. We’re currently diverting to local food pantries all the grab-and-go materials that cannot be sold. We’re looking into any way we can reduce waste from the source first. Then we’re looking into other kinds of food diversion, such as to the food bank. It’s also been exciting to work with the local growers. I think we’re getting to a point where we are establishing some really great partnerships where we can start to get more local products into more dining centers.”