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Bon Appetit on the Business of Sustainable Agriculture

3p Contributor | Tuesday September 15th, 2009 | 4 Comments

tomato-bigEd Note: This is the first post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. We invited Bon Appetit to lead this conversation because they want to focus on difficult questions to which they don’t have answers. We think it’s a bold step when a company puts itself on a line to seek answers to tough questions. We may not solve them all, but we hope we’ll make a start.

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At Bon Appétit Management Company we track our progress in sustainable food sourcing via a living document called the “COR Matrix.” COR stands for Circle of Responsibility and refers to our sustainability-related commitments. As a food service management company with over 400 cafes on corporate and school campuses across 30 states, we needed a way for us to track our promises and our dreams. Borrowing the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch stoplight system, the Matrix has three categories:

Green - commitments we’ve made publicly; system-wide policies for all our 400 accounts such as buying at least 20% of our food from small, local farms or artisans
Yellow – initiatives that we’re working on behind the scenes but haven’t announced yet (i.e. before we spoke externally about our Low Carbon Diet we gave our chefs and managers a full year to meet several purchasing initiatives so we knew our program would mean change in the supply chain, not just marketing fluff)
Red – issues we’d like to tackle but don’t know where to start

For years, “farm worker rights” has been languishing in the red category. Every six months or so we’d talk about what stand we could take that would make real change for the people in this country that harvest our food. And, each time we were at a loss. While peer-reviewed science could tell us which fisheries are plentiful or how industrial animal husbandry breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, creating policy that affects human beings is much more complex.

That began to change for us when we were approached by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). CIW has been working for years on a “penny per pound” increase in wages for Florida tomato pickers. The tomato crews are arguably the most exploited workers in our nation. In fact, seven cases of slavery have been prosecuted by federal attorneys as recently as in 2007. Real slavery – people being chained up and forced to work without pay – not some tricky legal wrangling using dramatic wording.

Our CEO Fedele Bauccio and I traveled to Immokalee with one of our chefs, Francisco Alvarez. More on the details of that trip in next week’s post but suffice it to say what we saw was appalling. With the help of CIW, we crafted a code of conduct demanding workers be treated humanly and get paid a fair premium for this back-breaking work. We have since found a grower, Aderman Farms, who will meet our code and feel pretty good about what we accomplished – for one group of workers, picking one commodity, in one part of the country. What about the other hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers?

Having seen the conditions in Immokalee, we couldn’t help but ask if this is an isolated situation or business as usual in the agricultural industry. We could no longer in good conscience leave the farm workers on the red list. Still, we didn’t have a clear path or many answers.

We’ve decided that the first step is to ask more questions. We’ve reached out to the United Farm Workers, California Rural Studies Institute, Food Alliance, California Rural Legal Assistance and other s for information and Fedele and I toured farms and labor camps in the Salinas Valley and San Diego area. We were left with even more questions.

To help get some answers, we’ve hired three bright young people to ask the tough questions. Through our non-profit Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation, we established three fellowships for recent college grads that have demonstrated interest in food system politics. The fellows will spend the next year visiting our farm suppliers, large and small, and collecting data about worker treatment as well as a variety of environmental sustainability topics. Our goal is to establish a baseline of what we can reasonably expect from our farming partners and gather best practices that we can share.

This column will be documentation of that search for solutions. Labor is a major issue for this country’s food system. Significant progress has been made in the past few years on ethical sourcing, animal welfare, and environmental impact. Now it’s time to take a hard look at farm labor. Expect posts from me and the fellows as we learn more, hit roadblocks, and hopefully, get some answers.

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As Vice President of Bon Appétit Management Company, Maisie Greenawalt oversees communications, culinary development and purchasing. Her job includes shepherding the strategic initiative she was instrumental in creating – for Bon Appétit to be the most socially responsible food service company. Maisie has helped Bon Appétit tackle local purchasing, the overuse of antibiotics, sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs, the connection between food and climate change and farm labor practices. She also oversees the work of the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation Fellows.


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  • http://www.foodinitiative.com Winston Riley

    Dear Maisie: Thank you for your approach with Bon Appetite. I’ve been reading a lot about the impact you’re making and it is cool stuff. you don’t know me though you’ve seen some of my work, as I am the founder of the Research Chefs Association and coined the word Culinology. Now I am hoping to get RCA to see the value of considering the planet and the health of our customers, besides just the profit of the companies we work for. Thanks again. http://www.foodinitiative.com

  • Scott Exo, Food Alliance

    Maisie: I applaud the highly transparent way you and BA are approaching this and other tough issues re: your company’s ‘footprint’. It takes courage to tell the world not just what you’ve done, but also what you haven’t yet figured out.

    Food Alliance is pleased to lend its expertise to the issue of how farm workers are treated. I think we’ll all learn much that will improve how we deal with this issue.

    For those readers not familiar with our certification program that combines labor with environmental criteria for farms and food business, see the URL.

  • Scott Exo, Food Alliance

    Sorry, here’s the URL re: Food Alliance labor standards: http://bit.ly/FLB3Q

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  • http://www.strategizeblue.com Business Management

    This is the first post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. We invited Bon Appetit to lead this conversation because they want to focus on difficult questions .

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