Sustainability discussion turns into buy local debate

09/29/2009 12:39:24 PM
Ashley Bentley

ST. HELENA, Calif. — Trying to lose weight and trying to be more sustainable are pretty similar.

The two are alike because the first step to losing is to stop gaining, said Andrew Shakman, president and chief executive officer of food-waste tracking technology company LeanPath, Portland.

Shakman joined Marc Zammit, vice president of sustainability and culinary initiative for Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group North America, Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining, and Chris Loss, director of menu research and development for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in a seminar on working toward a more sustainable food system.

One of the first steps companies seem to be looking toward is implementing practices that could earn them a certification in sustainability from a third party auditor.

But the topic of sustainability certifications is still evolving, Zammit said.

"I think as more companies go public with their sustainability efforts, they will play a bigger role," Zammit said. "But do we turn around and ask our broadliner to be Food Alliance certified? I don't' know. Right now, I don't think that's a need."

The seasonality of fresh produce can further muddy the water.

"How do you work through the challenges of serving sustainable food when the product is not available?" Shakman asked.

Cost is the first push-back operators run up again, Zammit said.

"Don't settle on it (sustainable product) being more costly just because someone in purchase says it will be," Zammit said. "When it comes to sourcing, if you're asking purchasing to source locally, you really have to go outside the box."

If local, sustainable food is what you're looking for, stay in California. Don't go to the East Coast, Taherian said jokingly. Local produce is not as abundant in his area of the country.

"We have really good tomatoes from New Jersey, but we don't have anyone local willing to make our sauces, willing to make our salsas," Taherian said.

Taherian said he is able to source 65% of his produce locally August through October.

One issue with buying locally, especially for a large foodservice operation like Yale, which serves more than 14,000 meals per day, is finding local suppliers that are large enough.

"We're going after these farm factories because that's what we need," Taherian said. "I can't buy from someone who has to pick by hand. They need to have a harvester."

On a side note, in its first week of classes early September, Yale Dining chefs submitted a letter to dining administrators complaining that imported produce was mislabeled as local, according to an article in Yale Daily News. One dining administrator told the college paper that the university did purchase locally, but that a local producer may have used some leftover boxes meant for imported product.

The panel made sure to point out that local sourcing does not mean sustainable sourcing.

"There are scenarios when it may be much more sustainable to bring something into California than to grow it in California ourselves," Shakman said.

Large foodservice operations can influence their suppliers, though, and in some cases, are trying to help local producers have a more carbon-friendly way to market than an old truck with a bed filled with corn.

"It's doable if you have the buying power to influence your supplier," Zammit said.

Taherian said when growers in New England are having trouble selling their products, he tries to help.

"Eight to 10 years ago, we went into farmers markets because we wanted people to know that it wasn't just the fine dining that has access to these ingredients," Taherian said. "But the focus right now is how everyone can have them."

Zammit said his key clients, which are universities and institutions, are asking what Compass Group is doing to support local communities because their customers are asking them the same thing.

To answer those questions, the panel agreed it is imperative to have a more consistent way of measuring sustainable practices, particularly because of the threat of green washing.

"We don't have a quantifiable definition, and all scientists want that," Loss said. "Reducing waste is the start, and identifying feedback loops. Look for points in operations where you can identify waste."

Along with making food more sustainable, there's also a movement to eat food in a more natural state.

"The way we have been dealing with food production … kids in our schools are eating things I would not feed our children," Taherian said. "So we're talking about how we can change to things that are better for us."

This movement has a way to go, though.

"One thing we aren't talking about is personal responsibility," Shakman said. "Consumers aren't knocking down my door asking for these things. Until we as parents and consumers create demand, we're pushing water uphill."

Taherian said multimillion dollar companies that advertise on children's networks are partially to blame.

"My son knows about Domino's cake filled with chocolate and he's never eaten there," Taherian said.

Consumers need to have this kind of information about more healthful food, Taherian said.

At the end of the day, though, nothing will be sustainable in any way if it's not also financially sustainable, Shakman said.

"We need to make sure the volume is there when the demand gets there," Shakman said.



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