Dining Services and Housing and Residence Life celebrated sustainable dining as both a journey and a destination with its recent Sustainable Eats Bike Tour. 

The tour welcomed students to visit campus dining centers by bicycle, sampling locally sourced and plant-forward dishes while learning about campus sustainable dining measures at each stop. The third year for the tour, this was the first time participants used pedal assisted electric bikes, provided by program partners Roam New River Valley (Roam NRV) bikeshare and Bolt Mobility.

Blake Bensman, Dining Services sustainability manager, said the impact of the tour extends beyond the participants in the pedal-assisted procession.

“We can be that change agent, to roll across campus and show students they have local and sustainable options,” Bensman said.

He said that the tour’s visibility has attracted students each year who ask about the activity and want to know more about how they can get involved with sustainability.

Homefield Farm, a partnership between Dining Services and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, supplied organic tomatoes, basil, and sweet potatoes for featured menu items at D2 and Turner Place. Bensman said that each year the farm, eight miles from the main campus, grows 50,000 pounds of produce used in campus dining centers. Other local foods regularly served in dining centers and included in the tour were Homestead Creamery ice cream in Burger '37 shakes and Red Rooster coffee served at Sweets in Owens Food Court. 

The tour’s quick stops and curbside service called for single-use settings, an opportunity to discuss how campus recycling and composting commitments increasingly move food and material waste in loops rather than to a landfill. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 77 requires state agencies to eliminate single-use plastics but does not require initial reductions until the end of 2022. 

Bensman said despite that timeline, Dining Services has used the increase in takeout orders during the pandemic as an opportunity to identify where it can accelerate its replacement of plastic flatware with compostable options at its dining centers. Compostable and reusable takeout containers have replaced polystyrene in university-branded venues since 2015 and in national franchises operating on campus since 2018.

Through collaboration with Office of Sustainability interns, Dining Services has initiated a comprehensive analysis of its throughputs that involves characterizing food ingredients and other material inputs in its procurement platform and weighing samples of waste, compostable, and recyclable outflows from dining centers. The project will establish a baseline for further waste reduction measures, said Bensman.

Chef Moritz discusses locally sourced foods with students.
Chef Moritz discusses locally sourced foods with students. Photo by Darren Van Dyke for Virginia Tech.

Grayson Holland, sous chef at D2, said that food waste from dining halls is treated as an agricultural asset rather than a waste management problem. “If we have any food waste in the dining centers, it goes to compost that gets used for fertilizer at Homefield Farm so we can keep everything in a sustainable loop."

Nick Quint, transportation network manager for Virginia Tech and the tour’s ride leader, said using Roam NRV’s newly electrified bikeshare fleet opened new educational opportunities for the tour. “These bikes are a bit faster, so we’ll be on the road a little more, which is a great way to showcase some of the bike infrastructure that we have on campus and talk about how to bicycle safely.”  

Virginia Tech improved its League of American Bicyclists designation as a bicycle-friendly university from Bronze to Silver after launching the Roam NRV bikeshare program and upgrading bike parking on campus. Quint said the university is moving toward a Gold designation with a range of sustainable transportation improvements including building more connected and inclusive multiuse paths, expanding the bikeshare program and adding electric assisted bikes, and collaborating with Blacksburg on the new Multi-Modal Transit Facility.

Cat Woodson, Roam NRV operations manager, said the infrastructure improvements support increased ridership in the bikeshare program. "During the pandemic, some people preferred biking and walking to public transportation options to be outdoors. It was happening even with pedal bikes with folks stuck at home and wanting to get out.” 

“With electric assisted bikes, you’re able to go farther with less effort. We've seen a lot of use of the Huckleberry Trail for recreational and commuting use by town residents and students. Even if the mileage is longer on a bike, the commute can be quicker because you’re not stuck in traffic,” Woodson said.  

Pedaling into the final stop of the tour at Turner Place, participants discovered opportunities to bring Dining Services' local foods into their own kitchens.  Enjoying cavatappi with marinara made from campus-grown tomatoes, students browsed the farm stand at Turner Place, freshly stocked with Homefield Farm produce harvested as recently as that day. 

Mark Moritz, executive chef senior at Turner Place, invited students to share an even fresher ingredient, a live culture of sourdough starter he calls Bruno. Moritz said he wild-harvested Bruno from a vineyard near his former home and has kept the culture alive for 17 years. He has trained bakery staff to tend to Bruno’s exacting needs and uses the starter in Turner Place's pizza doughs and fresh breads. While serving garlic rosemary ciabatta made with Bruno, Moritz invited students to visit the kitchen for their own culture. “Say you want to meet Bruno,” said Moritz. “Everybody will know exactly what you’re talking about.”

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