Serving Up Change

In March 2013, we held a landmark event at Stone Barns Center: a convening of food leaders to share ideas about how to effect more change in institutional food service— the millions of meals that are served daily in schools, universities, museums, hospitals and the like. The Summit on Sustainable Food Service was an exciting moment in our nine-year history, as we hosted a forum on an issue that has such a bearing on so many Americans, and so much of the food landscape.

Together with our partners the Institute at
the Golden Gate and Rockefeller Brothers
Fund, we saw the opportunity to help
spark change broadly across the country,
change that can result in more organic,
more local, more sustainably grown and
more nutritious foods served. Institutional food is such a big consumer of farm produce and prepared foods that we saw a big opportunity to leverage change if we could get some of the most innovative minds in the same room to share ideas and models that have worked.

And that we did. We are proud to have assembled so many visionary and diverse entrepreneurs and change-agents. It was amazing to see cross-pollination of ideas and models happening between the corporate and education worlds, between hospitals and park concessionaires, between small colleges and big airports.

Despite the many success stories we explored, problems ingrained in our current food system can stymie change. In some places, it’s hard to find enough affordable local and seasonal foods to meet demand, and when it is found, existing regulations can hinder delivery. The lack of regional infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses and grain mills, ups the costs of serving local grass-fed beef or local grains, for instance. Administrators regularly cite the costs of organic or local foods as “prohibitive,” yet our current commodity food system undervalues the true costs of food because of cheap labor and agricultural practices that harm land and water.

One thing that Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle, said cuts to the bone of the issue and serves as solid advice for other food leaders: always consider what impact your supply chain purchasing has on the world, on human health, on communities, on the environment. If you let this be your guide, and hold yourself accountable to it, change can happen.

Jill Isenbarger, Executive Director