By. Tim Cole, Sustainability Officer for Virginia Beach City Public Schools


It’s been a little over a year now since Leith Sharp, Director of Education for Sustainability Leadership with Harvard University and Jenny Seydel, Executive Director, Green Schools National Network (GSNN), visited Virginia Beach, Virginia to work with school leadership at Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS).


We convened for two days at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center. Leith, Jenny, and their team collaborated with school Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, his Executive Leadership Team, and all of the department directors across the division (fifty participants) to lay the groundwork toward becoming GSNN’s first Catalyst School District.


While our time together helped us at VBCPS to establish a cultural shift in Triple Bottom Line (TBL) thinking, we also identified a number of areas to focus our sustainability efforts on over the next few years. These areas include sustainable food, sustainable transportation, and how we can do a better job of maintaining our sustainable infrastructure.


At the beginning of this school year, VBCPS started taking steps to change our model for managing and maintaining our infrastructure. Instead of constantly reacting to work orders, we have identified Building Managers who proactively address potential issues before they become a problem and relieve building administrators from having to deal with building-related issues. We have also formed a committee that is addressing sustainability issues around transportation, including ordering 27 propane buses as part of a pilot program to evaluate their impact on our bus fleet and exploring alternative transportation options for low ridership routes. I’ll report back periodically to tell you how we are progressing on these two issues.


The area I would like to focus on today is sustainable food. I don’t think you will find a parent or student that doesn’t have a strong opinion about school cafeteria food. Food has the power to evoke strong memories in all of us. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s all cafeteria food was cooked from scratch. I can still remember how school rolls smelled and tasted. It is a fond memory for me. We need to create more of those fond memories. As we kick off this school year, we are dipping our toes in the water to see what a more sustainable food model looks like for VBCPS.


source: Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners


It’s important to keep in mind that our Food Service folks struggle with the same issues that many other school districts around the country deal with. For example, they receive no funding from the district, so they must buy food, pay salaries, and purchase equipment, among other expenses, with the money they earn from breakfast and lunch sales. Therefore, if pizza and fries are the big sellers, then by God, pizza and fries will be the staple. And don’t forget, we have methodically removed most of the kitchen equipment used to cook food in our kitchens over the last thirty years. We have become proficient at heat and serve. Hence, the chicken biscuit wrapped in plastic has become the culinary gold standard.


This year, we are working with Greg Christian from Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners to pilot a sustainable food program at Old Donation School (ODS). ODS has approximately 1,300 students and serves grades 2-8. The goals of the pilot are:

  1. Provide healthy sustainable food for students and staff, including the purchase of local food to serve in school meals and increasing the amount of fresh foods served by 10% over our baseline year.
  2. Reduce cafeteria waste, including a decrease in plate waste by 10% over the course of the semester.
  3. Increase the number of students that purchase school meals by 5% in the first semester over our baseline year.
  4. Empower Food Service personnel as educators and respected members of the school staff.
  5. Remain cost neutral.


As we embark on this journey I will keep you posted on our progress, as well as the progress of our other sustainability measures. It’s an exciting time to be at VBCPS!


Tim Cole is the Sustainability Officer for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Tim was instrumental in the promotion and development of the first LEED certified elementary School in Virginia – Hermitage Elementary – as well as the first K-12 LEED Platinum Transportation and Maintenance Facility in the country. Under Tim’s leadership, Virginia Beach City Public Schools has constructed over 1.6 million square feet of LEED building space and was selected as the “Best Green School District” in the United States by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2012. Tim is an ex-Navy SEAL and holds a Bachelors of Architecture from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.