Three years ago, I was getting ready to graduate from college with a major in anthropology, which everyone swore was a death sentence for a job search.
I remember clearly the serendipitous meeting that landed me with the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation. Through a series of extremely random events, I attended a presentation by Bon Appétit CEO and founder Fedele Bauccio, Vice President Maisie Greenawalt, and Foundation Director Helene York. In that one hour, I learned more about the problems of our food system than I had in my entire college career — and that’s despite the fact that I had long been interested in sustainability issues and had even spent time living with organic coffee farmers in Mexico. These three corporate executives talked about things like rBGH, reduced antibiotics in animal husbandry, and sustainable seafood — some issues I had never even heard of. I was blown away.
In the discussion afterward, they continued to make quite the impression. I will never forget Fedele’s first words to me: “I really like your shoes!” (I was wearing green Converse sneakers that apparently reminded him of a pair he had had as a high school basketball player.) At one point after the presentation, he had me teetering on one foot while he lifted up the other to get a closer look to see if my Converses were the real deal.
“If this is any indication of what the people in this company are like, I want to work here,” I remember thinking.
Two months later, I landed the position as the very first East Coast Fellow for the company’s Foundation arm. It’s been a great three years, and I leave my job even more deeply impressed with the company than I was on that very first day. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why.
Truth vs. Marketing
First, I need to provide some context: Several years ago, I worked for an organization that promoted ethical products to consumers. I believed very much in the organization, although I knew the system it promoted was imperfect. (Of course it wasn’t perfect! No solutions to social problems are.) Yet, the image the organization sought to project was indeed one of perfection. In the marketing department, where I worked, our goal was to convince consumers that these products were quite simply “the ‘good’ choice” — no further discussion was welcome. Feeling as if I were misleading consumers, I became disenchanted with marketing as a field.
It’s funny to remember that, because many people later saw my position as East Coast Fellow as marketing. After all, I travel to college campuses within the Bon Appétit network and discuss food sustainability issues as well as how the company is working to address them. In other words, I promote the company. But here’s the difference: I knew from Day One that my superiors expected me to be 100% honest, even if that meant discussing Bon Appétit’s shortcomings. I knew this because I had seen three of the company’s top executives speak in public. While they highlighted the good things the company is doing — for example, being the first food service company to commit to shell eggs that were 100% cage-free and Certified Humane (a commitment we have since expanded) — they also engaged students in a frank conversation about how much more work there still is to be done. Cage-free eggs are certainly a step in the right direction, they said, but it doesn’t change the fact that a percentage of BAMCO meat comes from animals that were raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), aka factory farms, that are hugely detrimental to the environment, human health, and animal welfare. Bon Appétit was working to improve food system, but by buying certain products, it was still contributing to the problems. And Fedele, Maisie, and Helene weren’t afraid to admit that.
Coming out of my experience, where the only two options had been the “good choice” and everything else, this approach to “marketing” was so refreshing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Maisie, my boss, say things like, “What really keeps me up at night is the labor issue. I’ve been working on it for several years now, but I still don’t have a clear answer.”
When I started traveling to college campuses on behalf of BAMCO three years go, I was a little reluctant to brag about the company. After four years of activism in college, where I was constantly on the lookout for greenwashing, I wanted to make sure I didn’t come off that way.
But soon after joining the company, I stopped having any hesitation. With so much out there that is over-hyped, over-bragged, and not really making an impact — or not making the impact that organizations would have you believe — when something comes along that is the real deal, you’ve got to make a fuss about it. And BAMCO is making a real impact. Our Farm to Fork program supports more than 1,000 local small farms and businesses. Our recent commitment to sourcing more humanely raised meat will mean that more than 3 million pounds of pork will come from animals raised without gestation crates. No, the company isn’t perfect. We still buy some meat from animals raised in degrading conditions. Some of our suppliers probably do, under the radar, exploit their workers. But I don’t think anyone could hear Maisie Greenawalt speak publicly about these issues and not believe that she is sincerely and genuinely passionate about changing them. And I can personally attest to the fact that this company is making a difference.
I cannot express how grateful I am for my time at Bon Appétit, and what I have learned about how to change flawed systems, bit by bit, for the better. As I pursue a master’s in social work, I will take these lessons with me, and if in the future I am able to do half the good Bon Appétit Management Company does, I will consider it a job very well done.