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.