Studying Corporate Sustainability – From the Inside

Me, celebrating Mardi Gras with Duke University freshmen in February 2012

Nicole Tocco is the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation’s new East Coast Fellow, replacing Carolina Fojo (who’s leaving us for graduate school). 

When you’re outside a company looking in, it’s hard to tell if its sustainability claims are genuine. I had been interested in sustainable business throughout graduate school, and what I heard over and over (and over!) again was: get some experience in operations.  If you understand how a factory works or a kitchen runs, you’ll be more valuable to any sustainability team.

Working on an assembly line didn’t sound appealing to me, but managing a kitchen sounded like a natural fit — especially to my friends and family who deal with my controlling nature around food at home. So a year ago, I accepted a position with Bon Appétit Management Company in operations, because it was one of a small handful of companies that seemed to be making significant efforts within a constrained food system. There were some hints that made me fairly confident it would be a good decision. For example: Bon Appétit started its Farm to Fork program in 1999, long before local food was so trendy. And a former editor of my favorite environmental news source, Grist, had joined the team as director of communications.

Environmental and social problems are rampant in our society, and food has always seemed to me like a logical place to start solving some of them. We don’t actually all need flat-screen televisions or brand new cars or that third pair of skinny jeans, but we all need food. Food brings us together, it connects us to our cultures, it nourishes us. And it’s a system completely dependent on natural resources that we are currently abusing.  Change the food system, and you change the way that a lot of land is used in the US and abroad.

So there I was: ready to take on the world’s environmental problems in my new chef’s whites. Most managers in food service just learn the rules as they go. Fortunately, I arrived to a management training program that laid out all of the things that I needed to know in order to manage a Bon Appétit café properly. The list, too long for this blog post, ranged from menu writing to purchasing, and proper cooking techniques to troubleshooting our gigantic dishwashing machine. However, for some things, such as managing people, I learned that there’s no substitute for time and experience.

Eight months later, I had learned a lot about the daily push and pull of feeding thousands of people with seasonal, local food. I stopped calling my chef outfit an “outfit” and got to know hundreds of people – cooks, servers, cashiers, dishwashers, farmers, managers – whose hard work makes each meal possible and each meal unique.

I grew a thicker skin, confirmed that our claims as a company are legitimate, and gained a solid understanding of the challenges that the company will face as it continues to lead the pack in sustainability. When I heard about an opening this spring representing the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation: traveling to Bon Appétit cafés on the East Coast, engaging students in conversation and action around sustainable food issues and visiting the farms that we buy from, I jumped at the chance.

For me, this is an opportunity to be part of a unique team within a very unique company: asking the right questions, participating in challenging debates, and pushing the boundaries on food system change. I am honored to hear farmers’ stories firsthand and see the origins of the food that sustains us, to meet students who are passionate about food issues and are working to create and support change within their communities. I feel fortunate to be able to spend my time focusing on a number of important issues that fall under the grand word “food.” I look forward to sharing some of those experiences here in the coming weeks.