The Food System We Want to See
The Food System We Want to See
The food service company Bamco is transforming America’s food system—one sustainable purchase at a time.
In the processing department of a fish supplier in Alaska, a buyer noticed chunks of salmon left on the skin after workers boned and filleted the fish for market. “What are you planning to do with these?” she asked the fish processor, who told her the remnants would be crushed and thrown into Prince William Sound. Seeing opportunity where others saw waste, she offered to buy the small pieces, called trim, if the supplier shipped them to San Francisco. This particular buyer happened to be the director of purchasing strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company, BAMCO – and so, once in San Francisco, the trim was delivered to chefs employed by the California-based food-service company. The chefs were then challenged to do something innovative with it and created salmon burgers, salmon pad thai, salmon tacos, and a wide variety of other meals.
The 26-year-old company, which serves 150 million meals per year to corporate employees, university students, and museum goers in 32 states, has a long history of leadership in sustainable practices. Eliminating food waste like trim is just one example. Each of its 500 locations is under the direction of a chef who is required to buy at least 20 percent of produce from suppliers within 150 miles, a mandate that began back in 1999 when Maisie Ganzer, vice president of strategy, established BAMCO’s Farm to Fork program. Another program, the company’s Low Carbon Diet, asks chefs to cut use of beef companywide by 33 percent, cut the use of cheese by 10 percent, and eliminate air-freighted produce. And BAMCO was among the first food service companies to address the issues of antibiotic overuse, sustainable seafood, humanely raised meat and eggs, and farmworker welfare.
Using every single part of the business
By empowering chefs to independently support sustainability, BAMCO is attempting to create the kind of food system it wants to see in America, rather than proceed with the industrial food system’s status quo. “How can we use every single part of our business to create that food system?” asks Ganzer.
The food service industry as a whole is increasingly moving toward sustainability. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, a restaurant franchise and food product company, offers organic selections, serves vegetarian meals, and buys only sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs, crate-free veal, and pork raised without gestation crates. Similarly, among other initiatives, the fast-food restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill buys 100 percent of its pork from suppliers that do not use gestation crates or antibiotics. Meanwhile, the large supermarket chain Whole Foods buys local produce, procures large quantities of meat from producers that treat animals humanely, and has collaborated with the Marine Stewardship Council, the Blue Ocean Institute, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to make its seafood selection as sustainable as possible. Even Burger King has gotten on the bandwagon, offering veggie burgers and promoting meatless Monday.
But BAMCO’s long history has made it a leader in such efforts. “There is no food service company that is close to Bon Appétit’s leadership on animal welfare issues,” says Josh Balk, director of food policy for the Humane Society’s farm animal protection campaign. “Specifically, their commitments of switching 100 percent of their eggs to cage free, eliminating gestation crates in their supply chain and sourcing … animal products from farms that pass third-party certification programs from credible animal-welfare organizations.” By 2015, at least 25 percent of the company’s meat and eggs will be from sources whose humane practices have been verified by four such organizations.
“We put a stake in the ground, and we want to make it a reality of what we promised,” says Ganzer, adding that the company still has a lot of work to do to meet its 2015 goal of procuring pork raised without gestation crates. “The problem is, we don’t have enough suppliers lined up,” she says. “We are making promises faster than producers are making changes — and we are even willing to write the bigger check!”
Exerting even more pressure than their size commands
While most of the company’s efforts have been in support of local producers, BAMCO’s focus is also international. When company chefs requested tilapia, it enlisted the help of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to find the only tilapia producer in China producing the fish sustainably (less than 5 percent of tilapia is produced in the United States). Despite its red list of all tilapia from China at that time, the Seafood Watch program gave BAMCO the green light as a commercial buyer. Why? “Because it would send a signal to everyone else in China that if you change your practices, you can get more sales,” says Ganzer. “So we buy from one particular producer in China as a way to create a carrot incentive for the other producers to change their practices to be more environmentally preferable.” As a whole, China’s tilapia production has improved since BAMCO first started buying from its sustainable producer. Now tilapia from China is no longer red-listed but is labeled a “good alternative” by Seafood Watch.
Large-scale factory farms are the company’s next target. “We’ve always supported small, local growers, but how can we change the big growers?” asks Ganzer. “They’ve gotten away with a lot by being nameless and faceless to most consumers.”
Though it is not the biggest food-service company, BAMCO looks to punch above its weight, so to speak, and create change. “We are always pushing and striving to think of ways to leverage our brand and purchases to exert more pressure than our size commands, in order to make changes in the supply chain,” Ganzer says. Still, she understands that success in any area of food will only come if the product is something consumers will want to eat. “Don’t think we are so focused on sustainability that we forget that,” she says.
Veggies from the public park
Veggies from the public park
The town of Andernach is planting quinces by the car park and transforming dark corners into potato patches. The locals are in awe – and harvesting.
All that is needed to create a green public space is a bench, a patch of grass and a sign prohibiting some activity or another. Often even a rubbish bin will do, positioned alongside evergreen shrubs such as barberry or ivy. “Cemetery plants”, says Lutz Kosack, a geoecologist employed by the town of Andernach to maintain its parks and public spaces. “Doesn’t look particularly great, is ecologically pointless, but needs tending all the same.”
So how come these uniformly bland green plants are to be found in just about every German town? And why is it that the idea of growing radishes in a bed of pansies is scorned, despite the fact that harvesting them on our doorsteps would render their long-distance transport superfluous? We appear to have forgotten the post-war years when every little patch of green was used to cultivate fruit and vegetables. When Lutz Kosack and four or five of his colleagues at Andernach town hall decided in the spring of 2010 to (once again) make their town edible, local residents thought it an April Fool’s joke. The idea was that everyone in this town should be allowed to pick and harvest anything that the local authority decided to plant, from potatoes to cornflowers – to wit for free!
Objections, and notions of what is normal
Bewildered head-shaking was followed by countless objections: veggie patches in the park? Too easily destroyed. Wild flowers on a traffic island? Too untidy. Tomato plants growing along the city wall? Too expensive. A paltry 100 plants costing one euro fifty each sparked a discussion in Andernach about potential vandalism in public parks, describes Kosack. At the same time, the town was spending 500 euros on having a park bench on the banks of the Rhine dismantled and put together again: “This didn’t even warrant a three-line report in the local newspaper, as it is considered to be utterly normal.”
In fact, having wild flowers growing along the side of the street costs the town less than the usual beds of tulips, because shrubs and grasses do not need watering if the soil is covered in mulch. More importantly, however, they return every year and do not have to be replanted over and over again, as conventional flower beds do. “Such alternating beds have nothing to do with sustainability”, believes Lutz Kosack. “The tulips are planted in the spring until they are chucked on the compost heap; then come the sunflowers which in turn are pulled out at the end of the summer to make way for the pansies.” While 60 euros per year have to be reckoned for one square metre of beds in which the flowers are routinely replaced, the same area of shrubbery costs the town just ten euros.
The remit of local authorities, and reverence
Vegetable patches require considerably more attention. To maintain and water them, the town has recruited six long-term unemployed locals who receive a small wage funded out of federal government subsidies. Not a particularly sustainable solution, as Lutz Kosack admits, yet the town is unable or unwilling to afford its own gardener. “Runner beans are simply not considered to be within the remit of the local authorities”, explains the landscape maintenance expert. “Not yet.”
Unperturbed by all this, Kosack and his colleagues decided to go even further: for their publicly accessible potato patches and bee meadows, they purposefully chose to use those areas of the town most soiled with rubbish – the dark corners commonly sullied by dogs and humans alike. Like the flood ditch for instance, which used to sparkle green from all the broken beer bottles. Now, rhubarb, pumpkins and nasturtiums grow here. What is more, garbage workers no longer need to sweep up the broken glass; fears that the vegetable patches would be vandalized proved unfounded. On the contrary, the people of Andernach treat their bean plants and almond trees with care, indeed almost with reverence. People walking their dogs along the city wall will find themselves reminded from time to time that other people plan to eat the things that are growing there. “Put decent plants on people’s doorsteps and they will treat them with decency”, Lutz Kosack sums up his experience.
Everyone is allowed, wherever possible
In the first couple of years, many locals did not really dare to help themselves from the public vegetable patches. “At first it felt like stealing”, explains Heike Mützel as she wanders among the bean plants with a knife. “After all, my needs are not as acute as those who use food banks. But everyone is allowed to harvest here.” What is more, word has spread. Potato plants are now covered with netting to prevent them from being harvested too early. “Many people would simply pull up the potatoes to see whether they were ready yet.” Next season, Kosack and his colleagues plan to introduce a traffic light system by way of guidance, though they still intend to make do without signs telling people what to do.
People are even allowed to pick the wild flowers in bloom. The older residents of this town of 30,000 inhabitants are delighted to have the chance to cut bunches of wild corn flowers, poppies, ragged robin and marigolds. Many of them used to have their own gardens but found themselves no longer able to maintain them. Now they enquire at the local council whether they might be allowed to do a bit of gardening from time to time. Indeed, Lutz Kosack’s office in the town hall has been getting a lot of visitors recently: some bring cabbage seeds from their own gardens, while others ask whether they can plant things on their doorsteps. The town provides the seeds for the planting, while the local residents take care of the plants. Culinary herbs are grown in front of restaurants in the pedestrian area, and wild grapevines are even winding their way up the town hall’s walls.
International resonance, and a region’s cultural assets
The great public resonance confirms that the champions of the edible city are on to something: more than 300 cities and communities in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria have inquired for more information about Andernach’s officially endorsed food theft. Even in South Africa and Australia, some are considering to adopt the concept. The German towns of Minden, Kassel and Waldkirch as well as Austrian Kirchberg am Wagram have already done so. Meanwhile, Andernach is once again a step ahead: as of 2013, chicken inhabit the space around the city wall. While it is not allowed to harvest their eggs just passing by, they can be bought in a Fair-Regio-Store. This year, the chicken will be joined by some sheep. Their diet will consist of wild flowers, locally grown.
“When people hear about species becoming extinct, they think of the great white shark”, Lutz Kosack points out. “Yet the problem affects our native crop plants just as much.” This is why the geoecologist seeks to cultivate traditional, regional varieties in the town’s parks and green spaces and encourages local residents to take seeds with them for their own gardens. Examples include the Andernach apple variety Namedia Gold, the Baron von Solemacher strawberry and the Rhineland-Palatinate almond: these are the sort of cultural assets that define a region and make it unique – and the best way to preserve them is to use them every day. That is, to eat them. When enjoying a picnic in the park, the local almond variety does not even require a nutcracker, as it can be opened by hand. In other words, it is the perfect variety for an edible town.