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Seriously. Where Does Our Food Come From?

3p Contributor | Monday February 22nd, 2010 | 3 Comments

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


▼▼▼      3 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://twitter.com/foodalliance Food Alliance

    Sure, the food system is complex. But suggesting “it needs to be simplified” without offering any viable solutions – and undermining some of the good solutions that are out there – is not very constructive.

    We’re in some danger of letting our love affair with “local” eclipse other very important questions about our food. It’s very positive to take steps to localize food production and consumption to the extent possible – but, in many parts of the US, growing conditions and other constraints dictate that only a small percentage of food needs can be met from local production.

    We must also recognize that there are reasons why production of certain crops is centralized in certain regions. Oranges don’t grow in North Dakota, but they grow very well in Florida. Seasonal eating is good, but would be impossible and unprofitable to strictly implement all year for a food service operation with demanding customers.

    Like it or not, consumers will continue to buy and eat a wide variety of foods, and will want to have many of these foods available through large parts of the year. That means national and international trade. Given this reality, we’d better ask not only where our food comes from, but how it’s grown and handled.

    It's true, there are many certifications that attempt to tell consumers how their food is grown – and further, how it arrived on their plate. But only a handful have third-party credibility or certify practices beyond the farm.

    For more than a decade Food Alliance has provided the most rigorous and comprehensive certification for sustainably managed farms, ranches, food packers, processors and distributors in North America.

    Food Alliance Cerified is the only third-party certification to address safe and fair working conditions, humane animal treatment, and careful stewardship of ecosystems. For credibility, Food Alliance certification relies on independent criteria development and inspections by an ISO-accredited inspection agency.

    Food Alliance is also recognized as an indicator of socially and environmentally responsible products in:
    - Green Seal 46 Certification for Restaurants and Food Service Operators,
    - AASHE Sustainability Tracking & Rating System for Colleges and Universities,
    - US Green Building Council LEED Certification for Existing Buildings, Operations and Maintenance,
    - Green Guide for Healthcare,
    - Responsible Purchasing Network Guide for Food Services, and
    - Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index Supplier Assessment.

    Today there are more than 350 certified farms and facilities responsible for over six million acres throughout North America. Food Alliance Certified products include meats, eggs, dairy products, mushrooms, grains, legumes, and a wide variety of fresh and prepared fruits and vegetables.

    As many food service operators will tell you, there are no substitutes for credibility. That's why they choose Food Alliance Certified. I hope you will join Food Alliance and learn more at: http://www.FoodAlliance.org

    Full disclosure:
    A representative of Bon Appetit Management Co. currently serves on Food Alliance's Board of Directors.

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  • whmacken

    Bon Appetit is our food supplier at Intel and they are doing an amazing job. It's clear they are committed to sustainability and that commitment has spread to our employee base. This past Saturday a group of employees came out to our Jones Farm Campus in Hillsboro to build an organic garden on the campus. The Community garden, located next to the Jones Farm 4 North employee entrance, will promote knowledge sharing about gardening and enhance employee health by promoting exercise and consumption of organically grown fruit and vegetables. The employee grown organic food will be used by the gardeners and their families or shared with the Oregon Food Bank to help our neighbors.

    Lending a hand on each Saturday will be Advanced Technology Group (ATGweb.com), which agreed to do all the area prep work, pre-cutting of materials, ordering of supplies and equipment at a reduced rate. ATG also provided 4-5 workers at the site to manage the Intel volunteers.

    A 20’x20’ plot in the 32,000 square foot community garden will be dedicated to products for the Oregon Food Bank and used as a demonstration by two Intel employees who have become Master Gardeners, Jeanie Jarvis and Sara Running. Oregon State University gave these two employees, who have a real passion and skill for gardening, free openings in the Winter Master Gardener class with the expectation that these two students will stay engaged and help direct/coach at the site community gardens.

    The Community Garden will include:
    • 81 Beds, with mixed bed size options
    • Community spaces with raspberries, blueberries, grapes and fruit trees
    • Modified beds for the mobility challenged (raised w/a seat)
    • A tool shed
    • Water sources throughout

  • whmacken

    Bon Appetit is our food supplier at Intel and they are doing an amazing job. It's clear they are committed to sustainability and that commitment has spread to our employee base. This past Saturday a group of employees came out to our Jones Farm Campus in Hillsboro to build an organic garden on the campus. The Community garden, located next to the Jones Farm 4 North employee entrance, will promote knowledge sharing about gardening and enhance employee health by promoting exercise and consumption of organically grown fruit and vegetables. The employee grown organic food will be used by the gardeners and their families or shared with the Oregon Food Bank to help our neighbors.

    Lending a hand on each Saturday will be Advanced Technology Group (ATGweb.com), which agreed to do all the area prep work, pre-cutting of materials, ordering of supplies and equipment at a reduced rate. ATG also provided 4-5 workers at the site to manage the Intel volunteers.

    A 20’x20’ plot in the 32,000 square foot community garden will be dedicated to products for the Oregon Food Bank and used as a demonstration by two Intel employees who have become Master Gardeners, Jeanie Jarvis and Sara Running. Oregon State University gave these two employees, who have a real passion and skill for gardening, free openings in the Winter Master Gardener class with the expectation that these two students will stay engaged and help direct/coach at the site community gardens.

    The Community Garden will include:
    • 81 Beds, with mixed bed size options
    • Community spaces with raspberries, blueberries, grapes and fruit trees
    • Modified beds for the mobility challenged (raised w/a seat)
    • A tool shed
    • Water sources throughout

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