America Eats

We are what we eat – and a lot of us Americans are eating food served by institutions every day.

New York City public schools serve 860,000 meals a day to schoolchildren and teachers. Some 35 million people a year eat at a national park or other National Park Service unit. More people visit the 30,000 museums in this country than attend all sporting events combined, and many of them want a snack or lunch while they’re getting that dose of culture.

Daily, we grab lunch in the company cafeteria; our kids linger with their friends after dinner in college dining halls; our parents may be getting served their supper at a senior care facility. 

Institutional food is all around us. But thanks to the visionary leadership of many entrepreneurs and change-agents who gathered in March at Stone Barns Center for the first-ever Summit on Sustainable Food Service, the food being served in  cafeterias, refectories, dining rooms and restaurants is starting to change for the better. 

The Summit on Sustainable Food Service was organized and hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Institute at the Golden Gate and Stone Barns Center to catalyze change rapidly and broadly toward sustainability and good nutrition in institutional food service.  

Among the leaders who discussed their own company’s path toward sustainability in this laboratory-style gathering were Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, Revolution Foods co-founder Kirsten Tobey, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells and Bon Appétit Management CEO Fedele Bauccio. Through their stories of  hurdles overcome and some still being surmounted, they gave tactical advice to and shared their experiences with more than 50 other food service leaders assembled, including those representing hospitals, universities, national park concessions, airports and public schools in New York, Miami and Dallas.

Case studies and ensuing discussions explored four topics commonly identified as challenges to changing institutional food service: costs and pricing, customer education and choice, sourcing and seasonality, and retraining staff and retooling existing systems and infrastructure. They examined models of food services and supply chains that are delivering more locally sourced, sustainably grown and organic foods for their customers, and that are prepared in more healthful, nutritious and delicious ways.

The power of a big idea starting out in small venues was a common theme. In 2003, Yale University began to change the food service in one of its 12 dining halls so that all food served met its standards for local, seasonal, organic or sustainable; 10 years later, the Yale Dining Program and Yale Farm are celebrated aspects of campus life, sending out positive ripple effects into the community and regional farms. A few years ago, the National Park Service began to experiment with food service changes in a little café in the redwoods north of San Francisco—the only food concession serving Muir Woods National Monument—and today the café has not only been featured on the TV program “The Best Thing I Ever Ate!” but it has inspired new food service standards going into action across the breadth of the National Park System.

It’s still an uphill battle for schools, universities, parks, hospitals and other institutions to change their food service practices, even if the will exists. Problems ingrained in America’s current food system can stymie change. In some places, it’s hard to find enough affordable local and seasonal foods to meet demand, and when it is found, existing regulations can hinder delivery. The lack of regional infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses and grain mills, ups the costs of serving local grass-fed beef or local grains, for instance. Administrators regularly cite the costs of organic or local foods as “prohibitive,” yet our current commodity food system undervalues the true costs of food because of cheap labor and practices that harm land and water. Also the way many Americans currently eat was also identified as a hurdle itself: meals are eaten on the road, in a hurry and in front of screens.

But opportunities for change abound, they agreed, such as aggregating demand through group purchasing to bring costs down and helping grow the businesses of small and mid-size farmers through personal relationships and financial incentives. Gauging the enthusiasm of this crowd, they will continue to inspire each other toward change.  As one successful business executive said, we must always consider what impact our supply chain purchasing has on the world, on human health, on communities, on the environment. If you let this be your guide, and hold yourself accountable to it, change can happen.

One of the top recommendations coming out of the summit was to continue the dialogue. Nearly a dozen “affinity groups” sprang up to tackle issues ranging from living wages for workers to government subsidies. Stone Barns Center, the Institute at the Golden Gate and Rockefeller Brothers Fund are committed to catalyzing change at crucial points ahead, so stay tuned.

Photos from top to bottom:1) Conference is underway; 2) Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, discusses opportunities and challenges; 3) Panel discussion on providing healthy foods at competitive prices.