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Greening the College Cafeteria

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Bon Appétit Management
By Tim Kingston

Herb Polenta topped with Pesto and Mushrooms, Ginger Glazed Tilapia, Potato Cakes, Jasmine Rice (tasty in every grain), followed by Lemon Curd Pastry Squares—all made “from scratch”—are not the kind of mouthwatering vittles this scribe remembers snarfing down in his college cafeteria some decades back.  But such was the fare students were enjoying one sunny spring day in the Founders Commons at Mills College in Oakland. So what happened?  Bon Appetit Management Company.

 

More than just a purveyor of meals for students, the Palo Alto–based company bills itself as providing “Food Services for a Sustainable Future.” That motto and mission helped convince the school to use the firm. “Mills College sought out a food service company that would be in line with one of the college’s three overreaching goals in its strategic plan: sustainability,” explains Quynh Tran, Mills’s media relations manager.

 

As part of an effort to create a fully sustainable campus, Mills created ‘Food Matters,’ a student-led effort to raise consciousness about ethical agriculture and local food production and sourcing. Students and local residents are urged to get their hands dirty in a nascent community garden designed to both nourish and educate (see sidebar). Bon Appetit, however, remains the cornerstone of the college’s commitment to ethical agriculture in the real world.

 

“The goal,” says Jason Landau, general manager of Bon Appetit’s Mills College Dining Services, “is to source as much as we can within a 150-mile radius to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible.”

 

Bon Appetit’s commitment to local and sustainable food sourcing is ahead of most other firms’, and a variety of respected organizations find the company’s goals and achievements laudable. They include Physicians for Social Responsibility, Marin Organic, Revolution Foods Inc., ALBA Organics (the produce-distributing arm of the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association, albafarmers.org), and CAFF (the California Alliance of Family Farmers), which has worked closely with Bon Appetit. Even the sharpest critics of industrial and corporate food purveyors regard the company as the “best of what is out there,” as chef/consultant Jenny Huston puts it. Both Huston and Dina Izzo, founder and former director of ALBA Organics, are highly skeptical about corporate food service providers in general.

 

Nationwide, Bon Appetit aims to source 20 percent of the food it provides corporate and educational clients from “local farmers and artisan” producers within 150 miles of the account, within 48 hours of harvesting. In the case of Mills College, the local component is even higher. Jaime Dominguez, Bon Appetit’s Mills College executive chef, says 30 percent of fruit and vegetables were locally sourced this March.  In summer, he says, “We can get to sixty percent local, frequently, during peak harvest.”

 

According to Dominguez, the Mills College kitchen gets its fruit and vegetables from local distributor San Francisco Specialty, and 100 percent of its eggs come from cage-free chickens at the Glaum Egg Ranch in Aptos. Chicken and turkey meat come from Petaluma Poultry and Diestel Farms. The majority of meals are made from scratch, that is, prepared and cooked in the Mills kitchen.

 

Bon Appetit sources cheese from some of the sustainable operations in the North Bay, however, it should be noted that dairy products also come from Berkeley Farms, now owned by the agribusiness giant Dean Farms. Additionally, Dominguez allows that sourcing meat locally is “a challenge.” His beef comes from the Painted Hills Natural Beef Company in Oregon and is processed in Washington. It is also worth pointing out that Bon Appetit was purchased in 2002 by the Compass Group, a corporation that provides vending machines to schools, services health care facilities, and owns Wolfgang Puck Catering.

 

Bon Appetit is a $550 million company operating in 30 states. It serves 400 clients able and willing to afford quality food services more expensive than those provided by the Sodexos and Aramarks of the food world. In 2008 the company spent $55 million nationwide with local producers. Some of Bon Appetit’s other Bay Area accounts include the University of Santa Clara, Dominican University of California in San Rafael, and such high-tech firms as Google, Oracle, eBay, and Yahoo!

 

Commitment Born of Culinary Crisis

 

Bon Appetit was co-founded in 1987 by Fedele Bauccio, with the aim of bringing “fresh, made from scratch food to the contract market.” After spending 25 years in the institutional food service industry, much of it with Saga Corporation (the food service company this writer remembers from college days), Bauccio wanted to create a company driven by “culinary expertise.” His goal was to provide restaurant-quality food to an affluent niche market made up of corporate and museum cafes, the dining halls of private educational institutions, and upscale catering events.

 

“It did not start out as a political act, but as a culinary act trying to get that great flavor,” says Bon Appetit vice president Maisie Greenawalt. “We did buy locally from the beginning—to get the best artisanal bread and produce—but it was not until 1999 that we had what we called internally a crisis of flavor on the plate.”

 

“We had all these food memories about what food used to taste like. We had the similar feeling that food used to taste different, how we would bite into a tomato . . . and eat it like an apple.” Greenawalt says the companywide epiphany grew out of the realization that an average food item travels 1,500 miles to get to the plate, that food was being grown to travel well and look pretty, as opposed to tasting good, and that food was losing its nutritional value.

 

“That was the birth of our Farm to Fork procurement policy, a companywide commitment to buying locally from small to mid-size farms or artisans. That was the beginning of our path to sustainability,” says Greenawalt. She quickly adds a caveat: “That is of course an aspiration.  Currently, there is no truly sustainable food supply, but that is something we strive for.” Indeed, over half to three-quarters of the company’s food still comes from preferred vendors that may or may not be local or employ sustainable methods.

 

Although their commitment may be an aspiration, Bon Appetit’s nationwide 20 percent goal is significantly better than the mega food corporations. When first contacted, a Sodexo spokesman cheerfully insisted the company has 14 separate sustainability commitments worldwide. Asked for specific figures, he demurred, then called back to say the corporation is still working on “baseline data,” while admitting, “Right now there are no targets, we are doing an audit.”

 

Bon Appetit’s commitments are available on its website for all to see. The company uses no rBGH dairy, buys fish using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines, purchases beef, turkey, and chicken that does not routinely use non-therapeutic antibiotics for growth enhancement, and offers Fair Trade Certified shade grown and organic coffee options “wherever possible.”

 

Although the company does not have specific labor-practices guidelines, and does not require a union bug on its produce, Bon Appetit did sign an agreement last year with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farmworkers’ rights organization. The agreement mandates a “minimum fair wage,” institutes time clocks so workers actually get paid for the hours they work, and rewards growers with more Bon Appetit business if they cooperate with the agreement and the CIW.

 

Another example of Bon Appetit leading the corporate pack comes from Lena Brook, a senior program associate with the San Francisco chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. When Bon Appetit obtained a college account in Pennsylvania it encouraged local meat producers to get Food Alliance certification for humane animal treatment so they could meet the company’s sourcing standards and get its business.

 

Greenawalt says Bon Appetit enforces filters that go beyond simple geography. While the Salinas Valley is within 150 miles of the East Bay, it is also home to some of the biggest agribusiness firms in the country. Bon Appetit does not use those companies.

 

Greenwashing or the Real Deal?

 

It all sounds good on so many levels, but the fact remains that Bon Appetit’s national sustainability goal still leaves 80 percent of the company’s food coming from preferred vendors and distributors, that is, companies with whom Bon Appetit has an exclusive contract. Those preferred vendors may or may not be local or have environmental, social, and labor guidelines. (Dominguez says the preferred vendor content at Mills College is currently 65 percent.)

 

Dina Izzo, the founder and former director of ALBA Organics, snaps, “Twenty percent is greenwashing! They are big, with the capacity to do far more . . . They could go to forty to sixty percent, dependent on the region.” Asked about California, Izzo positively splutters, “Are you kidding me? We have a plethora of organic farmers that can circle the state!” Helge Hellberg, executive director of Marin Organic and creator of the School Lunch and Gleaning Program, suggests in calmer tones that Izzo’s goals are realistic, if ambitious.

 

Greenawalt rejects Izzo’s accusation. “We started our commitment to sustainability before we started marketing it: operations has been driving the marketing, rather than the other way round.” She has credible support. The current general manager of ALBA Organics, Tony Serrano, says Bon Appetit’s 20 percent target is the upper limit of what a for-profit firm can now achieve. Lena Brook of Physicians for Social Responsibility states Bon Appetit is deeply committed to sustainable and local procurement: “There is not a doubt in my mind about that.”

 

Yet it is worth noting Izzo’s perspective if only to spotlight the fact that our food supply system has a long way to go to reach real sustainability.  “Once the logistical infrastructure is in place that is necessary,” says Ariane Michas, CAFF’s local food system program manager in Berkeley, “We will look back at 20 percent and that will look great; that was great; but we are capable of much more.”

 

Right now, real constraints limit the ability of for-profit entities to increase their percentages of local and sustainable foodstuffs. The standard business model for food service contractors inhibits, and nearly prohibits, sustainable operations because it relies on rebates to be profitable. That means if a contractor agrees to supply a single brand to all its clients, be it of cola, salt, grain, bread, or ketchup, the distributor of that brand gives the contractor a rebate. In some cases the rebates are substantial enough that contractors can underbid or even lose money on accounts, but be in the black overall.  “The result is a legal kickback model that funds the corporate business,” explains Tim Galarneau, a researcher and educator at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.  In other industries this is called payola and is blatantly illegal.

 

Even if no rebates are involved, many food service contractors find that economies of scale make it easier to deal with one distributor, manufacturer, or corporate farm than with several smaller outfits. Finding sufficient volume and supplies of organic/local/sustainable food can also be a problem for contractors in some parts of the country. This too encourages companywide lists of preferred vendors.

 

Food service contractors (as do many other contractors) also profit from mark-ups and service fees, charging their clients more for software, linens, and food packaging than they pay. But their pot is further sweetened by the rebates mentioned above.

 

Not surprisingly, this makes it difficult for local and sustainable vendors to break into the large-scale distribution and food contracting market. Other factors that block local producers are prohibitive insurance rates and the level of documentation required by corporations.

 

To Bon Appetit’s credit, their chefs—unlike at most food service contractors, including other members of the parent Compass Group—have considerable freedom to make deals with local producers, and are actually encouraged to stray from the preferred vendors list. Greenawalt notes, “Our success is based on how much emphasis we put on the relationship between the chef and the farmer.”

 

The Way Forward: Don’t Just Buy, Engage

 

The most effective political and social justice campaigns use an insider/ outsider model. Developing a more just and sustainable food system requires consumer, labor, and activist campaigns on the outside at the same time that corporate leaders push their sector from the inside.  “There is space for for-profit companies to define a new playing field, to say you don’t have to race to the bottom to support your bottom line,” says Brook.

 

On the political front, Slow Food cultural emissaries and food justice activists work to shift high-end and mainstream consumer preferences toward sustainable food. Meanwhile, farmworker rights advocates campaign to get a fair-trade deal for U.S. farmworkers onto the agenda. “Ultimately what we need is democratic control of the food system rather than a privatized system,” says Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System (Melville House, 2008). But since that is not in the works any time soon, Patel looks hopefully toward some form of hybrid public/ private model.

 

Bon Appetit is setting a bar other corporations must meet to remain credible. This has the added advantage of exploding other corporations’ weaseling that sustainability is unattainable and unrealistic. “I applaud Bon Appetit for their efforts,” says Brook. “People are paying attention and some of the other companies are trying to follow suit and understand the writing is on the wall.”

 

UCSC’s Galarneau sounds a note of caution, warning that while Bon Appetit’s standards are laudable, “We need to maintain some transparency and accountability so that the dialogue is not just internal to Bon Appetit.” While the company uses other organizations’ sustainability guidelines, Galarneau stresses this must remain a twoway street so that other companies don’t simply set up their own voluntary social justice standards—with the attendant danger they may greenwash. “We want to make sure they are mirroring the real needs of farmers and their advocates so they are closely aligned with grassroots groups.”

 

Most sustainability advocates contacted by Edible East Bay believe the most effective model to use is a public/private hybrid. Local food activists and farmers have crops to sell, but are less effective at developing distribution networks. Michas says where CAFF had a couple of trucks delivering food (prior to handing distribution over to a local aggregator) even a medium-sized distributor can field 40 to 50 delivery trucks.

 

CAFF has the relationships with farmers developed over 30 years.  Distributors have the networks to get the farmers’ produce to the Bon Appetits and Mills College campuses of the world. So instead of reinventing the wheel, CAFF, other non-profits, and activists like Izzo plan aggregation hubs where for-profit firms can pick up locally grown crops.

 

“That kind of collaboration is the only way we can crack the nut of creating viable regional food systems,” says Michas. Thus, Bon Appetit and other firms would not need to strike dozens of individual deals with farmers. They could just head off to the aggregation hub. Michas says such a system would be completely transparent. This would make fraudulent “organic” distribution near impossible. Crops would be sorted and labeled with bar-coded “Buy Fresh Buy Local” stickers indicating what farm the crop is from, what the harvest date was, and how many miles it had traveled.

 

But more than just getting food onto plates is necessary. Really changing the food system requires that all hands be on deck. It needs the Fedele Bauccios of the world pushing their companies, competitors, and government to do more. It needs activists to keep the pressure on, and it needs educational organizations—and students like those at Mills—demanding that companies provide local and sustainable food.

 

It needs more than just passive consumers who simply buy good food: consumers need to be educated, engaged, and active. “We are trying to push a healthier vision of the food system, we are not just pushing for healthy food,” explains Galarneau. “It is more than just about food. It is about basic human connections.”

 

“There is no reason our food system cannot be sustainable, no reason it can’t be eighty-five percent sustainable,” says Chef Jenny Huston, who has approached that level of sustainability in nonprofits where she set up direct farm-to-table programs. “Just give us a choice. We can do this.” •

 

Mills College: www.mills.edu

 

Bon Appétit Management Company: www.bamco.com

 

Physicians for Social Responsibility: www.sfbaypsr.org

 

Marin Organic: www.marinorganic.org

 

Revolution Foods Inc.: www.revfoods.com

 

ALBA Organics: www.albafarmers.org

 

CAFF: www.caff.org

 

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: www.ciw-online.org

Immodest Dreams of a Small Community Garden
By Tim Kingston

Christina McWhorter, the enthusiastic coordinator of the Mills College Botanic and Community Gardens, is a compact bundle of dirty-nailed energy who dreams of a community garden providing bushels of hyper-local food to the campus kitchen. Listening to her talk, one can one almost see dancing baskets of organic campus-grown vegetables marching magically into the Mills College Bon Appetit kitchens, then waltzing out as delicious student dinners.

McWhorter and her volunteers have harvested asparagus, beets, carrots, sorrel, lettuce, raspberries, shitake mushrooms, calendula, lemon verbena, garlic, potatoes, and a dizzying array of weirdly named tomatoes from the garden’s 2,500 square feet on the Mills Campus. “We grow it all from seeds,” says McWhorter, “Last year we grew Silvery Fir Tomatoes, Persimmon Tomatoes, and Cherokee Purples.”

“The Botanic Garden is a great place to get your hands dirty and interface with classes and local schools,” enthuses McWhorter, who views both gardens as places to learn, grow, and create community, while grooming a new generation of sustainable food ambassadors.  “We want to create students who are responsible emissaries of healthy eating who know how to grow food without pesticides and without disturbing the watershed.”

“We are hoping to establish a campus farm with an emphasis on production,” McWhorter says. The reality is decidedly more modest, however. The campus farm is only in the feasibility study stage.  The community garden has only sent about 30 or 40 pounds of produce to the Bon Appetit kitchen since it began two and half years ago. Yet this puts no damper on McWhorter’s enthusiasm: “It is a very low carbon footprint! We wash it off and walk it up the hill. It is ultra fresh.” She adds, “When we have a surplus we sell to Bon Appetit for the low-carbon diet menu on Earth Day and the ‘Eat Local Challenge.’ We grow specifically for these two days.”

The Mills Community Garden broke ground in June 2007, two years after McWhorter took over as coordinator. She and two volunteer students established beds in the college’s former lacrosse field for a variety of organic and heirloom vegetables. There are now about 15 regulars who show up to tend it: staff, students, and residents from around the Mills Campus. McWhorter has forged links with local neighbors and the Oakland Unified School District’s Melrose Leadership Academy (melroseleadership.ousd.k12.us) via such activities as gardening field trips and work exchanges. The gardens have a ‘you grow it, you can take it home’ policy.  All this is in line with Mills College’s commitment to sustainability.  Highlights include new buildings adhering to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, degrees in biology with a focus on ecological theory, environmental and public-policy majors with an emphasis in science or environmental policy, and independent majors such as the student-created “Food Systems” major.

McWhorter sees a direct link between noted California biologist Howard McMinn, who founded the original botanic garden in 1917, and her own efforts to promote a sustainable community garden. “The botanic garden supports curriculum, demonstrates native plants, celebrates local and global biodiversity, collects seeds for propagation, and helps restoration in local creeks.” McMinn founded his botanic garden to popularize and catalog California native flora in an era when most other biologists and gardeners were still wedded to a Eurocentric vision of gardening and biology. “People are using native to replace non-native plants just like 100 years ago,” says McWhorter. “It is all about saving water and using plants in their own habitat.”

McWhorter sees the growing interest in local and sustainable food as a comparable example of people becoming interested in and appreciating flora that is directly under their noses, instead of wanting food or admiring and desiring plants that have been brought in from somewhere halfway around the world.

 

Tim Kingston is a veteran Bay Area freelance reporter who has covered everything from why journalists should not be allowed to play with firearms to where the best local Oakland brewery can be found. He has also covered health, AIDS, local politics, and corporate misbehavior. While writing this article, he was quite surprised to find a corporation doing the right thing for once. He can be reached at timking@sonic.net.

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