Effecting change in and from within the system

At the NOFA Vermont conference there was one session in particular that stood out amongst an array of great workshops:  an executive who works for a major food service provider gave a talk on effecting broad food system change from within the food service system.  I’m not sure how she would feel about her talk being blogged about however, so I have chosen to keep her identity anonymous and I ask that my readership respect that also.


Having worked for this particular food service provider for a number of years, she gave detailed information on the ways in which she had helped them move towards a more sustainable business model.  She made an excellent point regarding corporate social responsibility:  it’s important for individual consumers to make mindful choices regarding their food, but it’s equally important—if not even more so—for those consumers to pressure the food service providers around them to do the same.


One consumer—or ten consumers, or one hundred consumers—can ensure that they’re buying local meat, or sustainable produce, or responsibly harvested seafood.  The importance of these individual choices cannot be underestimated!  But if that consumer (or group thereof) pressures their corporate or campus caterer—Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appétit, Chartwells, etc etc—to switch to more sustainable food, then they create an enormous market for that local and sustainable food.  Whereas an individual may spent $100 per week on groceries, a catering service may spend $100,000 per week for a campus or corporation.  That’s an exponentially larger amount of food dollars that could be going towards growing a better food system.


Moreover, food service providers have the capital—both monetary and social—to work with large food production operations to improve their standards.  This executive gave a number of examples from her time working with chicken, pork, and dairy operations to bring her contractors up to better standards.  Large-scale food providers have the means to do this– to say “I want my pork to be grown humanely/my vegetables to be grown organically/my coffee to be fair trade, and I’m willing to work together with you to meet that goal.”  This has an enormous amount of potential to effect large-scale change.


The question comes down to consumers.  If enough consumers demand that their food service providers source better food, then food service providers will listen—money talks, and if business is on the line then companies will stand up and take notice.  Market realizable, widespread changes in the food system are profoundly difficult to obtain, but by working within established food distribution frameworks we won’t have to reinvent the wheel.  By harnessing the power of these established businesses, we can ensure steady and sustainable market growth for local and sustainable foods.


What’s on your plate?

Wow, it’s been a crazy few weeks!

Over the past three weeks I turned in the first draft of my thesis (the thesis that inspired this blog!), hosted a lovely friend who came down to visit for a week, and then attended the NOFA-VT conference in Burlington, VT.  It’s been hectic, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular posting schedule- I’ve missed things around here!

On Friday I’ll be posting a recap of an excellent workshop I attended with the purchasing director of a major catering company about effecting meaningful change through institutional partnerships.  In the meantime, here’s an awesome video from the University of Vermont Continuing Ed on food systems- it’s an informative and entertaining overview of food issues in the US today.  Got someone who’s interested in food issues but doesn’t know where to start?  This is for them!

WPI sustainability projects

I saw a couple of great presentations from Worcester Polytechnic students at the NOFA-Mass conference- they were from WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and their projects revolved around using practical engineering knowledge to solve social problems.  It seems to me to be an excellent way to apply learned knowledge while benefiting the local community- and the students definitely didn’t disappoint!  The groups had a number of different ideas, but one that especially stuck out to me was a project that focused on the whys and hows of youth eating habits.

Specifically, this group was looking at why high school students eat unhealthy food, and applied techniques borrowed from anti-smoking campaigns to help them combat this.  Chief among these techniques is peer-led introspection, a process by which one member of the student group leads the others in keeping and subsequently discussion ‘food journals.’

There are two phases to the journaling process:  the first week, students write down everything they eat and discuss it.  The second week, the students are asked to make note of the food advertisements around them.  The peer leaders again lead the students in discussion about the advertisements, this time looking at overlaps between the food journals and the advertisement journals.

This is an excellent exercise in mindful eating, for lack of a better term- why do we eat the things we eat?  What influences us to make those choices?  I’ve pointed out earlier that knowledge is power- the more you know, the less likely you are to fall prey to misleading advertising or unhealthy foods.  By directly confronting both their eating habits and their food environments, the students are facing that interconnectedness head on.  Hopefully this kind of exercise will help them become engaged, savvy eaters- this is the kind of activity that’s beneficial regardless of age.