Sustainability in Foodservice: Where We Stand Today

The Future of Sustainability

Education plays an important part in laying the groundwork for the sustainability of sustainability. Providing future generations with the information, priorities and value of these initiatives appears to be critical to effecting long-term change.

Starting this year, the American Culinary Federation requires culinary professionals to take at least one course in sustainability to earn the organization's coveted accreditation. "All young chefs will have had to have had some sustainability training by the time they graduate, and we're seeing more energy, water and waste management as well as farm-based learning becoming more a part of school curricula," Young points out.

The ongoing challenge when it comes to sustainability, however, centers on the complexities associated with energy, water and waste management. As such, looking at the bigger picture is — and will continue to be — the biggest part of the long-term process.

Sustainability and the College Sector

At Michigan State University (MSU), Carla Iansiti, sustainability officer for Residential Hospitality Services, has not only helped sustainable initiatives play a larger role in her university's business practices and educational programs, she also created her own full-time position just to handle all of the work.

From developing a schoolwide recycling and composting program to sourcing more than 66 percent of food from local purveyors to instituting trayless dining to improving water and energy management in the kitchens, MSU's initiatives reflect the actions of many colleges and universities around the country as this segment of the foodservice industry strives to make sustainability not just an abstract concept but a priority and part of doing business. In most cases the students play a huge role in implementing these practices and represent a key factor in the success of programs, says Iansiti.

MSU in particular takes these sustainable practices one step further with LEED-certified buildings, as well as complete, closed-loop food systems through the use of an on-campus farm and cattle ranch, and strong support for local vendors (nonfood vendors, too) to help build back Michigan's economy. In addition, MSU's goal is to reach 70 percent waste diversion by 2015. The college tracks waste through its Clean Plate program and uses the feedback to reduce the amount of food produced. To track water usage, MSU places submeters throughout its kitchens. All procurement strategies now incorporate energy- and water-efficient equipment.

"We work to ensure long-term sustainability through innovative and balanced strategies that encourage environmental stewardship and educational enrichment," says Iansiti. "Every year my students ask me what are we doing to be more sustainable. My phone and email goes berserk , actually. What are we doing about our global footprint? How much gas do we emit? How many semi-trucks of straws do we have delivered? How does what we do impact animal welfare, the economy, the weather? These are the questions they ask."

Students, it seems, hold a large stake in the future of sustainability.

Sustainability in Healthcare

The heathcare foodservice sector has made noticeable strides in sustainability, most notably among facilities undergoing recent renovations. A portion of this comes as part of a larger goal to expand healthier, more nutritious and better-tasting food offerings. Food sourcing and back-of-the-house operations like energy and waste management go hand in hand for many of these institutions, when it comes to sustainability.

Eskenazi Health, formerly Wishard Health in Indianapolis, reopened late last year in a new facility that includes a 6,000-square foot on-site farm. In fact, Eskenazi is one of just a small percentage of new or remodeled healthcare facilities with on-site farms and/or LEED certification.

Sky Farm, a rooftop garden with raised beds accommodating wheelchair patients and volunteers, won't supply the hospital's entire produce needs for its servery-style marketplace, full-service restaurant Café Soleil and various grab-and-go/retail outlets, but Eskenazi management expects it will yield enough this upcoming growing season to make a noticeable difference in food quality. Some of the farm's produce will also be available for purchase by hospital staff for consumption at work or at home. A local grower with urban garden experience helped build the farm and will begin preparation for the growing season this spring.

In addition to serving as a symbol promoting healthy eating, "the farm is about bringing more fresh vegetables and farms into our operation," says Tom Thaman, director of food and nutrition. "Many of our patients come in with obesity issues and diabetes, so as a healthcare facility we need to model healthy behavior." As an additional exhibition of its focus on health and nutrition, the hospital eliminated the use of fryers and swapped out sodas and candies in vending machines for healthier options.

As a member of the Partnership for a Healthier America, an initiative bringing together private, public and nonprofit organizations fighting against childhood obesity the organization has several benchmarks it is trying to meet. But the hospital also has another mission: earn certification as a LEED Silver building, which it expects will happen this year. To help achieve LEED status, the hospital also focuses on managing its energy and water use and waste.

Eskenazi has also looked to be a model for resource management and environmental sustainability as well, by switching from Styrofoam to compostable disposables and by purchasing its own on-site composter/dehydrator to support its composting and recycling program. Since the program's implementation, the hospital has collected about 20 pounds of pre- and post-consumer compost per 2,000 meals. The hospital also bought water-saving equipment and systems, including some Energy Star-rated items, for the kitchen.

From a business perspective, sustainability has long-term advantages. "If companies and organizations like us do not become more responsible by recycling and managing waste and other resources, our costs will go up," Thaman says. In essence, sustainability is a community effort — a preventative measure to keep waste, energy and water costs from continuing to rise in the future. "We also want to be good stewards of public money as a public hospital, and energy, water and waste management plays a part of that because we see a return on investment and longer-term savings," he adds.

The advancement of sustainability initiatives in the healthcare sector truly depends on "how committed senior leaders are," Thaman says. "Slowly, though, hospitals are starting to understand the importance of this commitment to modeling both good health and environmental responsibility."

Restaurateurs as Farmers

With the National Restaurant Association listing "uber-local" sourcing and on-site gardens among the association's top trends for 2014, many restaurants, namely independents, have gone one step further by building and operating their own sustainable, self-sufficient farms. By doing so, these restaurants continue to reshape this country's food distribution system — making it more regionally, seasonally and sustainably focused — and in the process, source better-tasting and more environmentally friendly food. They are also developing financially viable models for small-scale local farming.

Morten Sohlberg, chef and owner of the 10-year-old Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group, first took this step in 2010 when he bought a 150-acre farm in the foothills of New York's Catskill Mountains. Now, Blenheim Hill Farm supplies fresh meat, produce and eggs to Sohlberg's multiple restaurants, including three Smörgås Chef and three Crepes Du Nord locations in New York City. Together, Sohlberg's restaurants serve more than 300,000 guests a year.

In addition to an array of crops, the farm raises a small flock of Icelandic sheep, Hereford beef cattle, several breeds of pork and many chickens for both meat and eggs. A 3,000-square-foot, hydroponic, insulated and heated greenhouse lengthens the growing season, producing a number of different crops each year, including a variety of lettuces and greens, herbs, heirloom cucumbers and tomatoes, beans and more.

"We wanted to make sure we can trust the products we are using in our restaurant and serving our guests," says Sohlberg, explaining one of several reasons for the farm. "We wanted to make sure we were serving produce grown without pesticides and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat that doesn't come from commercial feed lots. We found there was so much fraud in the modern food system that we started plotting and preparing to be more efficient and produce some of the food ourselves."

In essence, the Norwegian-born Sohlberg's philosophies intersect with another growing trend — one where more restaurants and chefs are exploring "new Nordic cuisine," which centers around sustainably grown and produced vegetables, meat and seafood and relies on simpler cooking to showcase the high quality and superior taste of this minimally processed food.

In fact, Sohlberg plans to open a fine-dining restaurant centered on Scandinavian cuisine in New York's West Village, with a menu almost entirely based on Blenheim Hill Farm's bounty. Sohlberg's venture represents the next horizon in farm-to-table dining, with restaurants putting their own personal stamp on the food they serve. "We basically have enough product to have our own distribution system, which gives us more control over our inventory and menus," he says. "The concept is that we're now a part of every step of the product we're selling."

He adds, "Right now we are almost 100 percent self-sufficient and 100 percent able to absorb all products that come from the farm." Sohlberg will drive to the local farms that supplement the supply, just to make sure they are in fact sustainable as advertised. "Our strategy for this is that we have different layers of use — when there is a surplus of something we try to be creative with our menus to be able to use it all. When harvesting pigs and animals, we use all parts, including the head, tongue and cheek, making terrines, pâtés and other specialties. As a result, we have become so much more knowledgeable in our own kitchen by being forced to adopt a new set of skills we originally didn't think we had to have."

During peak season, restaurant staff or Sohlberg himself will make the three-hour drive to the city, transporting produce from the farm , where he lives part-time with his family (who also helps out), to the restaurants via refrigerated truck. A full-time farm crew offers additional support. After a few failed managers, Sohlberg has taken to managing the farm himself, while continuing to learn all he can about farming and long-term maintenance.

Sohlberg takes a top-down approach when it comes to the question of what to plant, letting his growing interests take precedence and designing menus around those products. He also collaborates with foragers to bring in other specialty foods like mushrooms, wild herbs and nuts. Local food processors help cure, smoke and make sausages out of some of the meat from the farm.

"Our goal is to be as self-sufficient as we possibly can, but also serve food that tastes good and have enough variety," says Sohlberg. "I think we're at the very beginning of what food looks like in a restaurant. With more restaurants running farms, there is going to be some interesting innovation in the food industry."

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