Richmond’s local food movement might be alive and well, but locally grown food isn’t finding its way onto the plates in Shafer Dining Court.
Regulations and logistical issues have prevented campus eateries from sourcing more locally grown produce, said Tamara Highsmith, manager of sales and services for VCU Dining Services.
“We know there is a local and national trend of students wanting to eat healthier and locally. However, I don’t think a local farm or restaurant at this point in time has the resources to continuously provide meals for this number of students,” she said.
Although there is no steady source of local food for campus dining, Highsmith said, VCU is making an effort to incorporate more of it into Shafer.
“We have started doing things like the guest restaurant program where a local place sets up exclusively for one meal,” Highsmith said. “We also have local food days, where one menu item is exclusively grown local.”
She also pointed out the tough regulations that small farms must go through in order to get their produce into restaurants in general.
Tricycle Gardens in Manchester has been farming in Richmond since 2010. Aside from their Urban Farm, which yields 20,000 pounds of produce a year, the business has established five community gardens in the area.
At the community gardens, members can rent a portion of the land and grow what they please. Locations include Carver, Church Hill and Union Hill.
Tricycle Garden’s program coordinator Isabel Eljaiek said the overall quality of food produced by a local garden is higher quality than that of a mass distributer like Aramark, which provides food at VCU.
Aramark is one of the largest food providers in the country to places like schools, sports facilities and healthcare establishments. It is currently listed 205 on Fortune 500’s ranking of America’s largest corporations.
“Big agriculture practices monoculture and uses a lot of pesticides. Here, we practice biodiversity, growing a bunch of different plants and rotating them. Our produce is more diverse and healthier because of it,” Eljaiek said.
VCU signed a 10-year contract with Aramark last year. The university is required to periodically change food distribution contracts, so a request for proposal was sent which Aramark responded to. A committee of 11 members, which included three students, oversaw the contract decision. Highsmith said that even with a large distributor, the school is finding new ways to make healthy eating easier.
“We are making a strong effort to label all of the food in Shafer,” she said. “The definition of what is healthy varies from person-to-person, so we want to make sure everyone, no matter what your dietary needs are, can know what they are eating at all times.”
Efforts to provide more nutritional information and healthier options are making an impression on students. Sara Andrassy, a senior education major, said she has noticed changes in healthy options in Shafer since her freshman year, but still sees room for improvement.
“I think their (Shafer) salad bar and vegan side of the salad bar have definitely improved over the years, especially when they added the hummus and pita options,” Andrassy, a vegetarian, said. “However, they repeat a lot of the same few dishes, and the food is frequently cold or lukewarm.”
She also said she liked the idea of labeling the food in Shafer.
“It’s a great way to encourage people to be a little more conscientious about what they eat, I just hope the labels are truthful,” Andrassy said.
Regulation also plays a key role in how local food is distributed. The term “organic” on a food label is viewed as a legal term, which is why small farms like Tricycle Gardens do not have it printed on their produce, Eljaiek said.
“The word organic is just a label. A farm has to pay thousands of dollars to have the right to call a product organic, and we can’t afford it,” Eljaiek said. “This means that a lot of the stuff with that label sold in supermarkets is grown by huge farms owned by the same big agriculture companies. They are the only ones that can afford it.”
Regulatory laws have also affected VCU. The food grown at the community garden at Larrick Student Center cannot legally be served in any dining hall.
“While we participate in the community garden at Larrick Student Center on the MCV Campus, health department regulations requiring an insurance policy prevents us from using the produce we grow,” Highsmith said
VCU Dining Services does have a surprise in store for students: an in-house bakery. Highsmith said students will have more options than ever when it comes to pastries. The bakery will be added to Shafer this winter, and offer more vegan and gluten-free options.