Challenging the Sustainability of Campus Food

Written by Nathan Makela

From the very first moment students step foot onto Colorado College’s campus, Bon Appétit becomes an unavoidable part of the CC experience. Even prospective students and parents visiting campus for only a short time are involved with the services of Bon Appétit at every meal the school provides.

Bon Appétit is based in Paolo Alto, Calif., and provides café and catering services to colleges, universities, and corporations. On the CC website, Bon Appétit markets itself as CC’s “socially responsible food management service” that “strives to provide the college community with meals that are local, sustainable, delicious, and nutritious. Bon Appétit is also committed to serving faculty, students, and staff with seasonal organic options whenever available.” Here on campus, Bon Appétit’s choice to use compostable materials is one tangible example of its effort towards sustainability. Located on almost every table in every dining hall, we see information outlining Bon Appétit’s efforts to provide students with fresh, healthy, sustainable, and local foods.

In the past, Bon Appétit has received accolades from the Ecological Society of America, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Seafood Choices Alliance. In 2013, the Princeton Review conducted a survey asking over 126,000 students at 378 colleges about the food their colleges provide. The results concluded that four of the 12 campuses with the “best college food” in the nation have contracts with Bon Appétit.

Through relative standards and convincing rhetoric, Bon Appétit has cemented itself as perhaps the most reputable college food provider in the U.S.. Unbeknownst to much of the CC community, Bon Appétit is owned by the Compass Group plc., a British multinational foodservice and the largest foodservice company in the world. What factors are at play when a multinational corporation provides food for a small liberal arts school in Colorado Springs? Is monetary incentive taking potential business away from local farmers? Organic farmers? More sustainable farmers? And finally, what standards are Bon Appétit using to measure their food purchasing practices? And what does information from independent sources say about Bon Appétit?

Junior Isaac Rubinstein and sophomore Sarah Kang recently formed a chapter of the Real Food Challenge here at CC. The Real Food Challenge is dedicated to raising awareness about where the food we are eating comes from. They set food purchasing standards encouraging local, fair, sustainable, and humane products. Only 20 percent of Colorado College and Bon Appétit’s food purchasing practices meet these four categorical standards.

And the monetary incentive definitely gets in the way, specifically in the form of “kickbacks.” Kickbacks are essentially a rebate that food providers must pay food purchasers in order to continue doing business with them. Consequently, larger food providers are preferred over smaller, local providers because they can pay larger amounts of money for kickbacks. For K-12 public school food providers, kickbacks have been outlawed. Mike Callicrate of Callicrate Cattle Company, a local cattle farmer from Kansas, was previously a meat provider for Bon Appétit and CC. When Bon Appétit asked for a kickback, he refused, and Bon Appétit no longer does business with his company. Under the current kickback structure of food purchasing, local farmers cannot hope to compete with giant commercial farms. In some cases, kickbacks can account for up to 50 percent of a food purchasing company’s profit.

So if CC only meets 20 percent of the local, fair, sustainable, and humane food purchasing criteria established by the Real Food Challenge, there is obviously an enormous opportunity for change. With first year and sophomore students’ required subscription to the meal plan, this is not an issue that can be ignored. The main problem here is that with only Bon Appétit educating the college community on its food purchasing practices, students are ignorant to the real statistics surrounding the ethics of the food they are eating. The accolades that Bon Appétit has received in the past say more about the inferior state of the food purchasing industry rather than the good work Bon Appétit has done.

In 2018, the contract between Bon Appétit and CC will be renegotiated. Let’s make sure the college knows their food purchasing practices can be improved. Rubinstein says that it is time for “our food on campus to align with our values.” Raise awareness. Get involved. Schools across the country have signed pledges to increase the percentage of local, fair, sustainable, and humane food products they are purchasing. University of California, Santa Cruz, has signed a pledge to increase to 40 percent local, fair, sustainable, and humane food purchasing. Johns Hopkins University has signed a pledge to reach 35 percent. CC can do better.

People want to be intentional about their food choices. If given the option, people want to eat locally, ethically, and sustainably. Unfortunately, Bon Appétit has constructed a dishonest narrative surrounding their food purchasing. But clearly, this isn’t just Bon Appétit’s problem, and they are actually one of the better food purchasing companies under the Real Food Challenge’s criteria. Growing, purchasing, and eating food is related to so many important issues: worker and animal rights, economic status, environmental issues; the list goes on. Join the movement to increase awareness and create real change within our community and across the country.

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