University of Vermont

Green Dorm

Campus Food & Energy Seminar- What Does Google Eat?

by Charles Martin '16, Sustainability Outreach Intern

Establishing a procurement framework for social & environmental responsibility for food service in a college environment.

What should we consider when we aim to develop a sustainable food system? In this third of four seminars making up the 2014 Campus Food and Energy Seminar Series, Helene York shared her knowledge on the complex nature of food systems and invoked thoughts on setting goals for a socially, economically, and environmentally responsible food service on a college campus. Helene has worked for industry-leading national food service company, Bon Appetit, for almost ten years in a variety of positions, including Directer of Purchasing Strategy. For the past 18 months, Helene has been the Director of Procurement & Responsible Business at Google, creating opportunities for underappreciated food resources including blemished fruits and vegetables, foraged fish, and carbon-friendly no-till wheat. Throughout her career, Helene has visited hundreds of farms, factories, and production systems around the world in order to gain a clearer understanding of the true complexities behind a food system, and to develop procurement policies toward sustainable purchasing.

She began her seminar by posing the question, “[w]hat are we trying to achieve in improving our food system?” Often, people will settle with a label on their food indicating that the product is “sustainable”; however, truly sustainable food involves a plethora of attributes that often come into conflict with each other. Although people tend to focus on the best way to grow food, the variables of delivery, preparation, and actually feeding people remain in the equation of the entire system. Helene also pointed out the tendency to focus on an accretion of values that people believe represent ‘sustainability’ (cage-free environments, ‘humane’ meat, green-listed seafood species, etc.) rather than a strategy to change the system. Although values are a great place to start when establishing goals, an accumulation of purchasing commitments can lead to contradictions, counteracting goals for a sustainable food system.

Helene described examples of how such contradictions can arise in actual food systems. These examples included trade-offs in establishing true responsibility in the chicken industry and the amount of perfectly edible waste produced by the sockeye salmon industry. However, the complexities inherent in the goal for an ecologically and socially responsible food system were best deomnstrated when she recalled the process of selecting a California carrot producer at one point in her career. She described the social and environmental variables in deciding between a large conventional farm, a large organic farm, and a small diversified local organic farm, with emphasis on the yields associated with each method of growth (40 tons, 18-30 tons, and 2 tons, respectively). This narrative gave a new perspective on the assumption that a small, diversified, local organic farm is always the most responsible source. Rather, this narrative considers the land resources required to produce a sustainable yield using these methods.

Helene touched briefly on the big picture issues associated with food system development including: the drastic amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, the inequity in food distribution (1 billion people are currently underfed, while another 1 billion are overfed), and the anticipated need for a doubling of calories available by 2030 to support the global population’s hunger needs. However, this area of research was covered in depth during the previous two Campus Food and Energy Seminars: The Big Picture, featuring Doug Lantagne and Eric Garza, and The Impacts of Campus Food on Climate Change, featuring Chris Gassman. Still, the four issues Helene mentioned were enough to demonstrate the challenges that we’re up against in our aim for a sustainable food system.

Fortunately for the audience, specifically for myself as one particularly ignorant to the issues involved in food systems, Helene ended her lecture on a hopeful note. She stated it is very possible for us to develop our food systems to continue to prosper far into the future; however, changes must be made. With a somewhat simple approach, Helene advised  we “start with the plate”. This means by focusing on culinary and nutritional development, we should ask a number of hypotheticals. What if vegetables were a part of every meal? What if we introduced new flavors and varieties? What if we incorporated “The Responsible Business Framework” (developed by Carol Stanford)into our food system, balancing decisions in light of their impacts on the consumer, the co-creators, the Earth, community/society, and investors?

After the seminar, I had the opportunity to join Helene, along with a number of graduate students studying food systems, for dinner at my favorite local food restaurant in downtown Burlington. Yes, of course I’m speaking of The Farmhouse. Over plates of locally raised beef and vegetables, we discussed the food industry, the hierarchy of staffing operations in the restaurant industry, and a plethora of different topics concerning how we can cultivate the mindset that food is meant to be nutritious, delicious, and humanely produced. Not only did Helene have a great number of interesting points to raise about said topics, but she was a joy to share a humanely produced meal with.

Helene’s main take-home message, both at her seminar and at The Farmhouse, was to question the food products that we passively accept as permanent variables in our lives. Is it nutritious? Do the certifications slapped on the item truly reflect our values? Is it delicious? When we start to question the food system, and do our best to incorporate our individual perspectives and opinions into our food service provider’s operations or our own individual food-selection process, we can begin to invoke change that will lead to a healthier and more responsible future.

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The Clean Energy Fund and Food Systems Initiativehave sponsored this semester’s Campus Food and Energy Seminar series. The goal of the series is to engage in critical dialogue about UVM’s current food system and, eventually, use the feedback compiled at the seminars to create a meaningful action plan for a sustainable food system on campus.

Food Systems Initiative: The UVM Food Systems Initiative is an transdisciplinary academic effort that includes research and the Food Systems minor in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, among other endeavors.

Office of Sustainability: The UVM Office of Sustainability is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE--link) and works to advance sustainability and environmental responsibility at UVM.

Clean Energy Fund:  The Clean Energy Fund is the result of a self-imposed $10 student fee that works to advance renewable energy at UVM.

Real Food Challenge: In 2012, the University of Vermont became the fifth school in the country to sign on to the Real Food Challenge. UVM has agreed to work with University Dining Services to buy at least 20% real food annually by 2020, with “real food” being defined as local, sustainable, fair trade, and humane. UVM uses the “Real Food Calculator” to calculate the amount of “real food” consumed on campus. As of Fall 2012, UVM has purchased 13.58% real food, and the numbers keep growing.