Audio by Jane Ford
November 24, 2009 — Thanksgiving is the holiday that's about family and friends gathering around food. It's a harvest tradition dating back to the Pilgrims' celebration of their survival of the first winter in the New World. They feasted with food grown and gathered in their community.
A group of urban and environmental planning students and faculty in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture challenged themselves to do the same, and since 2006, they and their families have held a "100-Mile Thanksgiving" featuring food produced within 100 miles of their table.
More than 100 people gathered Friday to share their potluck offerings.
"The emphasis is on local food, because we are in such a fantastic area for food. In the Charlottesville area, there's just so much that is grown produce-wise and also meat, poultry, cheese, wines," said Dana Smith, a second-year graduate planning student and social chairwoman of the student planning association, which represents both graduate and undergraduate planning students and organizes activities.
The annual get-together had existed for many years as an "event to bring the planning department together to share a meal," Smith said.
The idea of sourcing the food locally came about after planning professor Timothy Beatley had a conversation with the authors of the book "Plenty: Eating Locally on a 100-Mile Diet." They challenged Beatley to bring the idea back to his students to help them explore local food and make the Thanksgiving get-together an educational experience.
Prior to this new approach, the gathering did not reflect the "department's values of sustainability and sustainable place-making," said Beatley, who also developed a class devoted to community food. The class introduces students to the role of planning in a local food system that includes preserving agricultural lands, educational programs for those interested in growing and producing food, issues of food equality, food justice and equal access to food in low-income areas.
Leading up to this year's dinner, Smith and her "Thanksgiving committee" added a new dimension: They designed a number of activities to explore local food and created a blog.
The activities included visits to local food systems and trips to the Harvest Festival at Monticello, the Vintage Virginia Apples Fall Festival in North Garden, Wade's Mill in Raphine and Polyface Farm in Swope. In that last visit, they picked up the turkeys they had ordered in September for their Thanksgiving feast. They also got together to make applesauce and learn to ferment food as a means of preserving harvest bounty for the winter.
The emphasis "was education and fun, too," she said. "This is a way for us to just get to know each other outside the classroom while also learning more about where our food is coming from."
They called the activities "Our Journey to Thanksgiving" and created a blog.
"We wanted to document this journey to Thanksgiving dinner and share with other people what we are doing as students and to give ideas for people who might want to try doing a local Thanksgiving themselves," Smith said.
The blog includes posts from the excursions and activities, pictures, links to local food sources, directions for fermenting vegetables and recipes that incorporate local foods ¬– including historic Virginia spoonbread and contemporary dishes ranging from baked apples to spicy sweet potato fries.
The main focus of the dinner and the blog is to raise awareness of the idea "where does your food come from," Smith said. She added that she hopes others will explore incorporating local food in their meals. "Maybe it's not Thanksgiving – maybe it's Christmas or New Year's, or wait until Easter when we're in the height of the spring season."