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7 December, 2012

The Sustainable Classroom: Practical Vs. Purist

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The Sustainable Classroom: Practical Vs. Purist 

It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to blog. That’s what a vacation in New Orleans will do for you. But I’m back, and I have a few more posts coming your way from the TerraVITA 2012 food and wine festival. This one is a summary of a fantastic panel that was part of the Sustainable Classroom day of educational sessions. The session title and subject was “Practical vs. Purist: Ideal and the Real World…Can They Really be the Same?”

The panel was the perfect blend of people from both sides of the practical versus purist divide, though this wasn’t at all a group of people arguing against using sustainable food sources. Rather, they all agreed that sustainable sourcing is optimal, but the practicality of doing it on different scales was the main question that interested me during the ranging conversation.

First, I must give props to the moderator, Bruce Schoenfeld, the wine and spirits editor at Travel + Leisure magazine.

Bruce is on the left in the purple.

He had amazing, pointed questions that repeatedly got to the heart of the discussion and didn’t let the conversation dwell on the value of choosing sustainability and local produce. They were all preaching to the choir, so that sort of discussion was unnecessary. Instead, it was the practicality of how much change can be made: Is it really possible to eat all your meals that way? And more importantly, can it be done on any scale of food production?

The other panelists included

Scott Marlow, executive director of RAFI-USA, an organization that advocates for sustainable family farms,

Cassie Parsons, chef and owner of the Harvest Moon Grille and Grateful Growers farm in Charlotte,

Angelo Mojica, director of food and nutrition services at UNC Hospitals and an adjunct professor of nutrition at UNC,

and Nate Peterson, resident district manager for Duke University with the Bon Appetit management company. The final panelist was farmer Suzanne Meslon of Cozi Farms,

but she unfortunately had to deal with a friend’s car accident that morning, so she was only able to make a few comments at the end of the session.

That group of people fostered a lively discussion with a lot of passion about the practicality of using sustainable, local products. Cassie strongly made a case for her restaurant being a shining example of sourcing all ingredients from within 100 miles of Charlotte. It was voted the Best Restaurant by Charlotte Magazine in 2011. But the point was raised quickly that while something on the scale of a restaurant is achievable, providing meals for all of Duke University and UNC Hospitals is another story entirely. The 2 million meals that UNC Hospitals produces in a year make using all local products nearly impossible. Angelo shared that a lot of the problem is on the wholesale side. For instance, there aren’t facilities that can dice enough carrots in terms of manpower to make using 100% local produce feasible.

Nate has made great progress in getting Duke’s food services to be 20% local, but it requires a lot of time to investigate and make those relationships with enough farmers and processors to be able to reach that number. He’s proud of those steps made, and rightly so, but it involves using a large number of farms and producers to reach the needed ingredient quantities. Nate explained that part of what he’s done has been to establish a culture among the different Duke cafes and services so that each chef designs meals with local ingredients and everyone in the process becomes used to the amount of time it takes to develop those relationships that ensure sustainable ingredient availability on the wholesale side.

Scott made an important point that the impact of people choosing to eat locally and sustainably is on the rise, but the market is still just a miniscule part of the agricultural industry overall. He raised the idea of acting as a gold standard for other people to follow, recognizing that not everyone will make the choice to eat better from a sustainable standpoint all the time, but it’s good to have that example anyhow. Cassie proposed that those of us who care about these issues should be modeling the behavior, that we should set the bar high so that others will begin to normalize it.

That last point prompted Bruce to ask if incremental steps are worthwhile or if they really just function as white-washing, especially in larger organizations that have not completely switched over to sustainable sourcing, like Chipotle, but are making an effort.  Angelo argued that the small steps UNC Hospitals can take have a major effect because of their reach in volume. They may not be able to offer anything close to 100% sustainable and local ingredients, but what they can do matters. Angelo has overseen a transition for UNC Hospitals into offering foods richer in nutritional qualities and focusing on seasonal items and healthy preparations in the cafeteria, but there are still a lot of restrictions he faces due to the huge numbers of diet requirements the patients have. He is not sure it’s possible to reach for a focus on seasonal, local ingredients when so many patients must have certain ingredients in their diets, like needing broccoli year-round. It took over a year to develop their most recent menu changes for the hospital because of the nutritional requirements. But Angelo believes that taking small steps for a large organization like UNC Hospitals is important regardless.

Nate supported that idea, believing that if a Duke student makes the choice to pursue better options due to what they’ve been offered, he’s made a difference.

By the end of the panel, my brain was hurting from trying to follow all of the different aspects of serving food that folks like Cassie, Angelo, and Nate have to consider on a daily basis. Their passion for incorporating sustainable and local ingredients and processing into their work is admirable, even if they aim for much different levels of commitment to that goal for a variety of reasons. It was an enriching panel, and one that I hope for more of at next year’s TerraVITA.

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