It is a genuine honor for me to be with you today. I am thrilled that you’ve asked me to be a part of your celebration, especially in your theme year of sustainability: about the food we eat, the water we drink, the shelter we live in, the energy we use, the footprint we leave, and the future we build.
I am mindful of an observation made by Benjamin Franklin. He said: “Here comes the orator with his flood of words and his drop of wisdom.” I promise not to flood you with words. Whether I leave you with a drop of wisdom is for you to judge.
I’ve been struggling a bit about what benchmarks to offer you, a generation so smart, so quick, so perfectly positioned to tackle this new world — one infinitely more complex than when I grew up. For you, the question is not if you will make an impact, for it is clear that you are well poised to make one. You are leaders in academics, the arts, community service, and athletics. You’ve grown up with, and have been educated by inspirational role models. In this broken world of ours, your talents, your dreams and ambitions are beacons for a brighter future.
“Eating with the fullest pleasure is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” –Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry, America’s poet and staunch defender of small-scale farming, said: “Eating with the fullest pleasure is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” It is this connection with consumers, the communities in which we work and live, and the environment that I would like to focus on for a few minutes.
I had the privilege to serve on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. I traveled all over the United States to see and learn firsthand how our food was raised and the effects agriculture has on the environment and public health. It gave me the opportunity to help formulate solutions to the problems which lie at the heart of our nations system of agriculture.
Food production has shifted from the traditional, extensive, decentralized family-farm system to a more concentrated system with fewer producers. Not long ago, the bulk of the fruit, grain, vegetables, meat, and dairy products consumed by the American people were produced on small family farms. These farms once defined both the physical and the social character of the US countryside. We have shifted to an industrial agriculture model run on agrochemicals, federal subsidies for feed crops, heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and responsible for an unconscionable percentage of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
We continue to push the concentration of modern agriculture past the limits of ethical and environmental acceptability. The current system to ensure the safety of our food is disjointed and dysfunctional. It contributes to the development of an undernourished, grossly overweight population filling up on empty calories. The problems are not one-dimensional. They affect multiple aspects of life in this country. They impact the health of the public through the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, as well as the rivers and streams that support our fish and wildlife. They contribute to the increase in the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics. They impact rural communities and the fundamental ethical tenets of our relationships with the billions of animals that are raised and slaughtered each year to provide meat and dairy products for our tables.
While the impacts of factory farming may be far-reaching and detrimental to many aspects of life in America, they are distressingly invisible and unknown to most Americans. As a people we have become remarkably divorced from the roots of our food supply. We continue to harbor romantic notions of a more pastoral form of agriculture which has all but disappeared in the United States, only to be replaced by the densely packed, windowless sheds housing thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of animals who live out their remarkably short lives without ever being able to exhibit and experience many of the natural behaviors of their species.
One wonders how we ever ended up where we are today. We never voted or ever had a conscious say on the transformation of agriculture from what it used to be to what it has become.
The Pew Commission was able to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of the current way in which we go about raising the vast majority of our farm animals for food, and to make it more compatible with the ideals of a society that strives to balance the needs and best interests of people, animals and the environment, in ways that do not jeopardize any one merely for the sake of market efficiency.
This experience served to underscore my commitment to Bon Appétit’s core values of sustainability. When I started Bon Appétit, my dream was to build a company that would make a significant difference in our industry — one that would see things differently, crazy enough to think we could change the world by uprooting industry conventions and by significantly changing customer expectations in a positive way. A company that would help to fulfill the promise of tomorrow by providing flavorful food that’s healthy and economically viable for all, produced throughout practices that respect farmers, workers, and animals, nourish the community and replenish our shared natural resources for future generations. Healthy and economically viable for all is perhaps one of the biggest challenges America faces.
Bon Appétit Management Company now has over 500 locations and serves over 190 million meals annually. We source as much product as we can from local, owner-operated small family farmers and artisans. All of our seafood purchasing follows the Seafood Watch guidelines for sustainability. Our protein is purchased without antibiotics as a routine feed additive and we were the first food service company in the United States to serve cage-free shell eggs. We created the Low Carbon Diet to help create food choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We established game-changing fair labor standards, and a code of conduct for growers to follow, in an effort to address the exploitation of farmworkers in this country. Nearly 2 million workers in America’s fields labor like machines without rights, earn sub-living wages, and exist in dehumanizing circumstances. The persistence of inhumane conditions and poverty wages for farmworkers has long been a tragic chapter in the story of American agriculture.
We need to chart a new course, and we must approach it with a powerful sense of urgency. As we struggle with these issues we need to move forward in a positive direction. Failure will only result in a further lack of confidence in agriculture, where we will continue to have increased environmental damage, worsening public health, dismal animal welfare, and a grave outlook for rural communities. In this age of increased awareness of the need for economically and environmentally sustainable endeavors, agriculture cannot be left behind.
We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, and so much to gain … if we just eat like we give a damn.
If I can make an analogy: four years ago when you arrived as freshmen at Albion College, the seeds were planted, and now you’ve matured and grown to the point where you are ready to harvest the fruits of your education. You are graduating today in a world that is faster and more connected. But it is, as I said before, a broken world in so many ways.
The chasm between the rich and the poor is wider than ever before. Opportunities for the uneducated are more limited than they’ve ever been. Violence, especially among our young people, is growing at an unchecked pace. And hunger among the world’s population is rising to absolutely intolerable levels.
This world needs you. Take the responsibility and the leadership to restore the beauty of this earth, with justice, hope, and love.
While the challenges are extraordinary, you can make a contribution toward a safer and healthier world. You have the freedom to think and work expansively, to reach farther, explore opportunities, take risks, and to make a significant difference — a difference in communities and the natural systems and resources on which our lives depend.
As I travel around the country, I see wonderful examples of young people touching people’s lives in so many ways: spending time to plant gardens in schools, teaching young children where our food comes from, working with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for those in need, helping to bring needed services to low-income communities, and creating a new dimension in people’s lives by helping the most vulnerable.
One of my heroes has always been Robert Kennedy. His vision for the American dream was a promise of dignity and hope for the underprivileged…especially for migrant farmworkers. This vision was fueled by optimism and faith in the qualities of our youth: young, caring, optimistic individuals working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor.
One of his famous quotes: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
You are graduating in the most amazing of times, and in the most challenging of times. The education you have received and have earned gives you unique status and responsibility to imagine better and make an impact beyond your borders.
This world needs you. Take the responsibility and the leadership to restore the beauty of this earth, with justice, hope, and love. We need your talents, your commitment, and your passion to make a difference in helping to nourish future generations toward a more sustainable future. Step into the future with confidence and skill, and a vision to change what is into what can be.
It’s time to stretch your imagination to envision what is not, and let it lead to invention and innovation, to catch the opportunities that would otherwise be beyond your grasp. With your energy, your hunger for adventure, and your newfound wisdom, find something that you care about. Stand up for what you think is right.
Raise hell for those who have no voice. Tap the reserves hidden within you. Do something you’ve never done before.
Listen to the music in your soul, run a marathon, climb a mountain, and don’t be afraid to wear the color purple. Unleash the ordinary, do something extraordinary. Life requires unrelenting effort, a willingness to try, and commitments that will span generations. I promise you that these efforts will help build meaning in your life.
Here is a fitting sentiment from an old song by Joni Mitchell — you won’t know it, but your parents might:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got
Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
And leave me the birds and the bees
My hope is that you will always have brilliant Mondays, lazy Sundays, and an occasional day with nothing to do but ride bikes and roller skates.
In 1855, an unknown poet named Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass. After reading the book, Ralph Waldo Emerson responded with one of the most famous tributes in American literary history: “I greet you,” Emerson wrote to Whitman, “at the beginning of a great career.”
I end here by wishing you the same. I greet you at the beginning of a great career. Graduates of 2014, we present you with our world. May you have the wisdom to use it well!