The pioneering food-services company shares what it’s learned
since launching first Eat Local Challenge in 2005
Palo Alto, Calif. (September 21, 2011) – When Bon Appétit Management Company launched our first Eat Local Challenge in 2005, “local food” was a novelty, not a national movement. The idea was to encourage people who cared about preserving flavor and community to bypass the supermarket aisles and seek out the bounty of food growing all around them, wherever they might live. Since then, the word “locavore” has entered the dictionary and new farmers’ markets are sprouting up around the country, even in the coldest states.
On Tuesday, September 27, all our chefs at more than 400 locations in 31 states will cook a meal from 100% local ingredients. (Or 99.9% — we don’t force anyone to give up salt.) Some enthusiasts will go whole (local) hog and make sure everything they make in their cafés on Eat Local Challenge Day comes from within 150 miles, even harvesting seawater for salt. Through our companywide Farm to Fork program, they’ve learned a lot about what’s available in their area throughout the four seasons, and how to make the best use of it. Launched in 1999, this initiative asks our chefs to buy as much local food as possible directly from small, owner-operated farms and artisan food-makers within a 150-mile radius of our cafés. Our Farm to Fork suppliers now number more than a thousand, and through them, our cafés direct millions of dollars annually back into local communities, helping to nurture a sustainable food system and bring diners the freshest food available.
The reasons to eat food grown by small, local farms remain the same as when we started – because it tastes better, is more nutritious, encourages biodiversity, preserves open space, and protects the environment, to name just a few. However, like our chefs, we’ve learned some important lessons in the years we’ve been going loco for local:
“Food miles” are just one part of the story. We don’t get side-tracked anymore by whether local food has a higher “carbon footprint” (i.e., energy expended and emissions generated in its life cycle) than supermarket food. It can be fun to debate whether Farmer Jane delivering those local tomatoes in a small truck around town uses more fuel than Corporation X’s big truck delivering to a grocery store, but there are many other variables involved. While we care very much about energy conservation and climate change — and launched aLow Carbon Diet program in 2007 to address it —we believe in eating local for many other reasons. (See above.)
Better distribution makes life easier for everyone. Actually, these days, there are fewer Farmer Janes personally delivering tomatoes to our kitchens’ back doors. As the local-food movement has grown, farmers have responded by forming or joining co-ops in order to meet the ever-increasing demand without compromising their values. Meanwhile, demand for local food is so strong that distributors are now willing to work with smaller growers to help distribute their wares regionally. A “hub-and-spoke” infrastructure that includes small farms is a critical piece of a healthier food system.
“Small” is good — but “medium” can be good, too. Back in 1999, wanting to support sustainable agriculture, we asked trusted advisers to help us define what kind of growers should qualify as Farm to Fork. The result was owner-operated, within 150 miles of our kitchen, and with annual sales under $5 million. We’ve since come to realize that while those criteria allowed us to support “bigger small” produce growers, it excluded “bigger small” meat producers. We’ve just added a “mid-size” category through which we are excited to help grow the supply of humanely raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. (For more, see “Bon Appétit Management Company Takes Local Meat to the Next Level,” September 20.)
Getting the real dish on local fish. While millions of Americans have heeded the call to “know your farmer,” ‘local seafood’ has remained at best a murky description: a fish landed at a nearby dock may have traveled hundreds, or thousands, of boat miles to get there, and few know how it was caught or by whom. Bon Appétit’s brand-new Fish to Fork program is a companion to Farm to Fork, with carefully researched guidelines that our chefs will use to seek out both wild fish and aquaculture that are truly local and more sustainable. (For more, see “Bon Appétit Management Company Sets New Standard for Sustainable Seafood Sourcing,” September 19.)
“For us, the drive to ‘eat local’ began with a quest for flavor, but along the way we’ve learned so much about the survival of small farms, about giving back to our communities, and about the kinds of agriculture, aquaculture, and fishing we most want to support,” said Fedele Bauccio, CEO and cofounder of Bon Appétit Management Company. “On Eat Local Challenge Day, we get to reflect on this journey, one in which we hope many more millions of people will join us — and think about where it might take us next.”
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About Bon Appétit
Bon Appétit Management Company (www.bamco.com) is an on-site restaurant company offering full food-service management to corporations, universities, and specialty venues. Based in Palo Alto, CA, Bon Appétit has more than 400 cafés in 31 states, including eBay, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Getty Center. A pioneer in environmentally sound sourcing policies, Bon Appétit has developed programs addressing local purchasing, the overuse of antibiotics, sustainable seafood, cage-free eggs, the connection between food and climate change, and, most recently, farmworker welfare. The company has received numerous awards for its work from organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Seafood Choices Alliance, The Humane Society of the United States, and Food Alliance. On Newsweek’s Best College Food 2011 list, Bon Appétit teams held the #1, #2, and six other of the 25 slots; its dining operations at Wheaton College in Illinois were recently voted Best College Food among 122,000 college students surveyed by the Princeton Review.