Seriously. Where Does Our Food Come From?

This is a post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management Company, 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. To read the earlier posts, click here.

By Bon Appétit East Coast Fellow Carolina Fojo

Thanks to leaders like Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan, the U.S. public is beginning to realize that a large number of today’s social, environmental and health problems exist because of the modern system we like to call the food industry. And what people are learning to ask is: Where exactly does my food come from?


For consumers this question can be a challenge. Does cage-free mean free-range? Is humane certified better? Or do I need both? Unfortunately, the food system is not just confusing for the consumers. Even when you think you know a lot—and believe me, after 20 years in the business, with 10 of those deep into green issues, Bon Appétit Management Company definitely knows a lot—the supply chain is not so easily tracked.

I recently spent a week piloting the Real Food Challenge Calculator for Bon Appétit. The Real Food Challenge (RFC) is a campaign to increase the procurement of real food—local, fair, ecologically sound, humane—on college and university campuses. Their calculator is a means to learning just how much “real food” a café has. So I took a week, and ran the calculator for just one of our cafés for just one month. And my takeaway from the experience was this: Unless we simplify our food system, the road to discovering “where our food comes from” is going to be a long one, indeed.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to identify whether or not the granola we purchased one day last October was organic. You would think that information like that would show up in an invoice. And it does—on occasion. Sometimes, however, you need to get in contact with your supplier, who may or may not know because they didn’t make the granola—they bought from someone who bought it from someone who bought the granola ingredient(s) from other vendors… And there’s no telling how far down that chain you’ll have to go before you find out whether or not your granola is, in fact, an organic product.

Just to make things interesting, let’s throw in another variable. What if, instead of looking for a certification, I’m looking for something more subjective, like “fair and humane treatment of farmworkers?”  How on earth do you define that? And who defines that? Who verifies that claim—yet another certification system (adding to the long list of cert systems which already exist)? Will that certification be trusted? (Or will we need, as some have proposed, a certification system for certification systems, letting consumers know exactly which certs can be trusted?) …And how, for goodness sake, will these gold standards be communicated to consumers without making them feel like they are going through airport security just to get a ham sandwich?

Simply put, our food system needs to be simplified.

One way to do this is by buying local—working directly with farmers and local vendors so that we actually know what we’re purchasing, where it comes from, how it was produced. Because of our Farm to Fork program, 20% of Bon Appétit’s yearly purchases are from local vendors. This program is based on our chefs getting to know, and building relationships with, local farmers—so one of our chefs can say with confidence that the melons she serves come from a farm that implements sustainable growing practices because she has been there and seen it herself. But for those products that cannot be purchased locally (or for those products that are far too processed to be made in just one place)—I simply don’t know what the answer is. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this struggle. And fortunately, I know there are a lot of intelligent people who read 3p. I’ve got a feeling, if we put our heads together, we can think of something.

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

-Alan Perlis, American computer scientist

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