Letter to the Editor

Jessica Vogt is right! The subject of “green” at Downer is even more complicated than her letter in last week’s Lawrentian suggests. The basic forces that have influenced the evolution of industrialized food service for the past hundred years are changing. I believe that it is critical that Lawrence understand the changes and their consequences for Lawrence Dining Services.
Much of what Jessica writes is right on the money. Something that is important, however, is that these terms that are bantered around, green, environmentally friendly, eco friendly, sustainable, have moved significantly into the marketing realm. As an example, we recently looked at bio degradable carryout products. These were marketed as “sustainable.” These particular products are made of corn based “bio plastics,” but failed to mention that industrial corn production in the United States and elsewhere can hardly be described as sustainable. What they really meant was that these products are not “petroleum based.” The point is that we really need to fully understand the motives behind all that green. We strive to make informed decisions at Lawrence Dining Services.
The cost of food in general has increased at a rate that significantly outpaces inflation for the past two years and it doesn’t look like this will let up anytime soon. The cost of fuel has added directly to the cost of producing and distributing food. This is due to greater global demand for oil. At the same time, the growing bio fuel industry has put additional pressure on the crops that are the basis of the world food economy. More directly, bio fuel and food are now competing for croplands. As a result, the price of commodities has further increased.
Competition for cropland is having a detrimental impact as banked land is brought back into production and rain forest land is cut down for new bio fuel production. We all know that forest preservation is critical to reducing global warming.
What does the future hold? James Howard Kunstler has written for many years about the impact of the impending oil crisis and concluded long ago that economies would become more local. Unless you believe that the cost of oil will suddenly fall significantly, it is hard to argue with this outcome.
For the past 40 to 60 years, cheap food and transportation costs have allowed the industrial food production and distribution industry to evolve. Under this model, raw food is produced where it could be produced most cheaply. It is then transported to a place where some level of processing occurs. It then is transported to a place where a “finished product” is assembled for transport to a distributor. The product is then ordered and delivered to an end user. This system relies not only on cheap food and transport, but cheap unskilled labor as well. No need for a culinary degree if all you need to do is make one cut off a primal of meat as it comes down the conveyor.
At each step along the supply chain where “value” is added to the product, profit is also built into the price. This system delivered food and helped restaurants to keep labor costs low, but carries hidden costs. Sugar, salt and fat all contribute to the shelf life of processed foods. Fruits are picked, not at their height of ripeness, but so that they can appear ripe at their final destination. Another impact is that fewer restaurants rely on skilled labor.
The dynamic between raw food/skilled labor and processed food/less labor is not bi-polar but rather a continuum. Where it once made fiscal sense to pay more for finished goods, it may make sense to invest in skilled labor to process raw foods.
But there is another critical factor. Many times, when we purchase processed foods, we are paying a premium price for salt, sugar and fat. Common measures include how many pounds of food per dollar. A better way to look at the value of our food purchases is to consider the “nutritive value of food.” In this model, a pound of spinach that was picked by a local farmer yesterday has more nutrients, and therefore more value, than a pound of spinach grown in California a week ago.
Competition for local food sources will increase. We have already seen that the cost differential between food produced by small local farmers and that produced by the industrial food system is shrinking. In some cases, local and seasonal actually costs less. Last fall we served local apples at 60 percentof the cost of industrially produced apples offered by our major vendors.
Here’s the rub! As the cost of producing food in the old industrial model increases, competition for local food sources will increase. Lawrence should be actively evaluating local options and laying the foundation with local farmers and producers in order to secure the pipeline to Lawrence in the future. We will need to be prepared to make commitments (and occasional sacrifices). We might occasionally pay a little more, but we might find some pleasant surprises as well. In the long run, however, we will benefit by beginning to forge relationships now.
Finally, we need to recognize that people are an integral component of future success of Lawrence Dining Services by investing in them. Cordially,
Chef Bob Wall
Lawrence Dining Services