Revolution in the Cafeteria

For the author, being a food activist isn't about going to protests; it's about reforming from the inside.


Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This September, two events are kicking off that probably couldn't have occurred on a national scale long ago: Slow Food USA's Eat Ins--a grassroots call for nutritious school lunches, and the Real Food Challenge, "a national campaign to redirect the $4 billion spent by colleges and universities on food each year that is healthy as well as local, ecologically sound, fair, and humane."

What progress this represents! The well-publicized pioneering efforts of the renegade lunch lady Ann Cooper in the Berkeley public schools and the Alice Waters-driven Yale Sustainable Food Project have inspired activism at educational institutions throughout the country. Many of the vigilant activists are unknown PTA moms.

Count me among these activists. I don't wear a beret (anymore) or participate in protest rallies. My activism is a lot more "behind the scenes" and generally--if not always--less noisy.

What's possible in Minneapolis isn't necessarily available in Maine. High ideals can die a sudden death if the supply-chain details aren't tended to.

I sit in a privileged spot. As director of strategic initiatives for Bon Appetit Management Company, a national on-site restaurant company that serves food to college students and corporate employees at 400 cafes in 30 states around the country, I monitor how well we achieve our company's progressive goals, including purchasing a minimum of 20 percent of foodstuffs from within 150 miles of each kitchen (a standard for every institution we've served since 1999), purchasing meats grown without antibiotics as a routine feed additive, Humane-certified cage-free shell eggs, Seafood Watch-approved sustainable seafood, and adhering to a Low Carbon Diet to minimize greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food services. (I have to admit that a reporter who once watched me press a group of suppliers who were being less than forthcoming about the origins of some of their products asked me afterward if I "always eat suppliers for lunch?" To which I replied, "Bad ones, yes.")

I also encourage chefs to go further on a local level, teach them about the scientific underpinnings of our initiatives, and work with them to get foods into distribution. What's possible in Minneapolis, though, isn't necessarily available in Maine. High ideals can die a sudden death if the supply-chain details aren't tended to.

Reforming the food system requires it all: protests against non-responsive global producers and CAFOs, and muckraking books and movies to raise broad awareness. But it also requires constant prodding and creative thinking from "the inside" that few enthusiasts see to overcome the challenges of distribution, of product availability, of cost, and especially the challenge of satisfying palates formed to expect high fat, salty, and sugary snacks in significant quantities. What's the point of sourcing and serving great food if students turn up their noses at unfamiliar vegetables? Or won't eat anything other than Cheerios and chicken tenders?

(Apparently cereal is a very emotional issue for some college students. Demonstrating a commitment to reduce highly processed foods, one of our chefs in Portland, Oregon removed the cold cereal dispenser from the dining hall for dinner. Student comment cards dissed his decision for days.)

What I'm referring to is the challenge of making these great dreams real in ordinary places. Few schools have Yale's money or Northern California schools' year-round access to nearby fresh produce. But as we've learned after ten years of corporate food activism at Bon Appetit Management Company, making great dreams real requires both push and pull. My days can be exhilarating and they can be terribly frustrating. Rarely are they scripted. As oxymoronic as it sounds, new challenges are routine, and figuring them out can be fascinating. I usually learn a lot.

My purpose in writing these posts is two-fold: to record challenges and learn from the reflection needed to compose my thoughts; and to pose questions to "'real food"' advocates whose values I share, but who sometimes think that a belief in goodness is sufficient for achieving results. It isn't. The more committed people think about the challenges of producing, distributing, marketing, and cooking real food, the better answers we'll have, and the better off we'll be in challenging those who have successfully thwarted real food for decades.