The most exciting piece of news I heard immediately after returning from spring break was that Val had rolled out a new sandwich line. A sandwich finally graced with the ever sought-after avocado? One stuffed with macaroni and cheese, tantalizingly named the Southern Slam? Looking over Val’s menu I saw other new offerings like “Maple Roasted Chicken with Sweet Potato,” “Honey Roasted Carrots,” “Quinoa con Naranja,” and a “Summer Cucumber Salad.” What intriguing culinary wonderland had I returned to?
To learn about these menu additions and Val’s current evolution, I spoke with Executive Chef Jeremy Roush. I was struck in our conversation by the enormity of Val’s operation: serving 4000 meals daily, Val’s 28-day food cycle includes over 600 recipes involving roughly 2000 ingredients. In the midst of this massive coordination task, Roush has an amazingly thoughtful vision for Val. Beginning in September 2010, Val revamped its efforts to provide a more fresh and diverse menu for the student body. The Val staff considers the desires of the community, fielding input from emails, comment cards, and campus-wide surveys. They continually adjust the menus based on how many students eat certain dishes at each meal. While considering the tastes of the students, Val has been aggressively pursuing their goal to provide fresher and more natural food options. Forty-seven percent of Val’s purchases last year came from within a 150-mile radius. The lamb you’ll eat this week is Vermont-raised. The spices are sourced from Southern New England Spice Company. The new cinnamon-pear jam that everyone’s jazzed about? Also locally-sourced. And Roush plans to establish more relationships with local food providers.
This initiative to provide fresher food is exemplified in Val’s relationship with Book & Plow Farm, a vegetable farm adjacent to Amherst’s campus started by farmers Peter Mclean and Tobin Porter-Brown. The partnership has provided a source of high-quality, seasonal produce for the dining hall (one-third of Val’s menu changes with the season, while the other two-thirds consist of core items like hamburgers and pasta). Book & Plow also provides work-study opportunities for students to harvest food for their classmates while hanging out with friends.
A new student group called Hooked on Aquaponics, led by Jim Hall ’15 and Pete Suechting ’15, offers another exciting way for students to bring their learning from the classroom into the dining hall. (Note: I run the Hooked on Aquaponics Instagram #disclosed). The group is constructing an aquaponics system, which uses fish waste to fertilize crops and produce higher volume vegetable yields. The group will sell its fresh herbs to Val and hopes to eventually provide fish. Jeremy Roush and the administration have been amazingly receptive to the initiative, recognizing that Val can be not only a place to eat but also an opportunity for engagement with the student body. “Aquaponics is not only herbs for Val and the symbiotic relationship between the plants, water and fish—it’s education of and engagement for the student body. Students can go out into the world with this concept and serve a greater mass of people,” Roush said.
Of course every single Val experience is not always memorable; it is inevitable that we tire of eating in the same place every day. However, it is helpful to remember that the dining staff and the Amherst community are working to make Val food both sourced from and geared toward the needs of the community. As a first-year student, it is reassuring to know that Val is concerned with it students and receptive to new initiatives. While improving food service takes time and requires much trial-and-error, it remains an effort that deserves continual student appreciation. Val on.