'Sustainable Food': Catchphrase or Lifestyle?



One recent morning at the Natchez Coffee Company, one of my coffee companions said he was surprised when he reads my weekly post and on occasion it is not a fun story with a recipe and is of a more serious nature. He said it throws him off, because he does not think of me as "preachy." He was specifically referring to my post several months back about the Gulf oil spill, and over coffee, when I was talking about sustainability, he said, Oh, that is such a catchphrase. I retorted that no, for me it is a lifestyle.

We must continue to work on our habits of sustainability, as we must have healthy fisheries at the end of the day.

The bandwagon effect can be good when you are promoting a good idea and equally can be bad when you are promoting a bad idea. I am an advocate of sustainability—a brilliant idea. I am especially interested in and concerned with sustainability in our seafood industry and the wellbeing of our oceans and rivers. I have always had an attachment to our coastal waters and what comes from them. I was feeling this long before our Gulf oil spill. I have learned quite a lot from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which I refer to constantly. I also try very hard to understand sustainability, so I can live it, which is why when I hear someone use the word "sustainability" I listen, or if I see the word written I read further. I often find that just because sustainable products are offered does not mean unsustainable products are not on the same menus and shelves. Of course, I know I slip here and there no matter how hard I try.

Like everyone, I receive hundreds of emails, and I am constantly sifting through, trying hard not to miss anything important. I recently received an email telling me that the James Beard Foundation would launch its first annual national food conference, The System on Our Plates, in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Laboratory, this fall. The invitation-only conference, held on October 21 in Washington, D.C., would focus on public health and sustainability through the lens of the foodservice industry. Participants included chefs, restaurateurs, government officials, philanthropists, and business leaders who said they would be addressing major challenges in the culinary world.

It had the word "sustainable" in it, so I read on to find that this conference was made possible with funding from Sodexo and Edens & Avant, founding partners of The System on Our Plates, and support from Sustainable Food Laboratory members Ruby Tuesday and Sysco. I am not a negative person and I always try to find the best in everyone, but I am not a pushover and I do have a curious nature and I had to look up each of these entities to validate if they really are on board with sustainability or just using it as a new adjective in a marketing campaign. Here are my findings:

• Sodexo: Named one of America's most admired companies by Fortune Magazine in 2010. Their website is impressive and they seem sincere in their efforts.

• Edens & Avant: Mega real estate developers who work with Fresh Market and Whole Foods. I am sure they have passed the litmus test with Whole Foods.

• Ruby Tuesday: A very pleasant surprise. Their website has many examples of going green, including using less paper for reports. I know they use trout that is rated as a "best choice" on the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch List and that their lobster tails are rated as a "good alternative"; I am not sure where their salmon and tilapia fall. Meredith Hammond from the corporate office said, "We care about sustainability and give priority to quality suppliers who care about the environment and adhere to environmentally friendly practices."

• Sysco Foods: I found out they even have a V.P. of sustainability, Craig Watson. The V.P. of corporate communications, Mark Palmer said sustainability is a pure business decision. It cannot be a public relations stunt, since it is far too important to meet the needs of their customers.

Even Whole Foods, although it labels fish as green (best choice) and yellow (good choice), still carries some unsustainable choices. It is a process, and if we understand the definition and we buy the best choices and good alternatives, eventually it will fall into place.

I have mentioned the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program and how serious they are. Their scientists research government reports, journal articles, and white papers, and they also contact fishery and fish farm experts. After a thorough review, they apply their sustainability criteria to develop an in-depth Seafood Watch Report. A panel of experts then reviews all reports. Their reports are available on their website, www.seafoodwatch.org.

Because of their scientific approach, they are cautious about making a call on the current Gulf seafood situation. I spoke with Sheila Bowman from Seafood Watch, and she said that it is important that we continue to be robust in our testing of Gulf seafood, although we are all hopeful. We must continue to work on our habits of sustainability, as we must have healthy fisheries at the end of the day.

I genuinely believe that sustainability is not just a catchphrase but a lifestyle that is becoming part of our American culture.

Chef John Besh is on the front lines as a New Orleans restaurant owner, and his reply contained more frustration, as he is living it every day. In his words, "The short term effects of the spill has meant short supply of oysters with hefty price tags to match, irregular supplies of fin fish, smaller crabs due to the oversaturation of inland crabbing, and a modest supply of shrimp at the lowest prices I'd seen in years as a result of nationwide poor public perception of the state of our fisheries, which by the way have never been more scrutinized by various local, state & federal authorities."

I also spoke with Ashley Roth with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. They have many sustainability plans in place and in the works. She said that Gulf Coast seafood is the most tested seafood you can find and it is safe. The unfortunate thing is the perception that it is not. It is an ongoing marketing and branding problem. We will overcome this—we just have to get the consumers outside our region to dig a bit deeper for the answers and not assume the worst. There is a great website with updates to validate you in your choice to eat Gulf seafood: www.louisianaseafoodnews.com. Gulf oysters, for example, were harmed by the diversion of fresh water into the marshes following the spill, not oil.

Sustainability can be traced to a 1987 U.N. conference, which defined sustainable developments as those that "meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Of all the definitions I have read, I remember someone with the surname of Rosenbaum from Washington State University, who coined it best: "'Sustainable' means using methods, systems, and materials that won't deplete resources or harm natural cycles."

Understanding the definition of sustainable is half the battle. I genuinely believe that sustainability is not just a catchphrase but a lifestyle that is becoming part of our American culture as more and more people jump on the sustainable bandwagon.