A new food culture takes root in schools
Dining halls and cafeterias champion the eat-local movement.
By Andrew Kendall, as told to Brian Bergstein
We’ve been lulled into being able to have anything we want, any time and from anywhere, regardless of how it has been produced. A good example is the wonderful apples and fruits and vegetables and other things that you can get right about now. It’s a celebration of what’s in season and the local farmer that produced it well. But in a grocery store, you can buy those apples and those blueberries and those raspberries and those grapes all year round. And unless you’re really paying attention, you won’t know that at some point those blueberries come from Peru instead of down the street. We as consumers have been completely disconnected from the impact of eating the same thing year round.
I don't know that we want to go back to the colonial times where you had to eat what was in season because there was no choice. But I think the question then becomes, is there a way to engage the consumer in the sustainability implications of the various food choices that they make at the grocery store or the restaurant?
As a small foundation, trying to have a big impact on the regional food system, we are looking for high-leverage levers. You have a million college students in New England on 200 campuses and two million K-through-12 students in several thousand districts. The college campuses alone have 200 food service directors, buying over $1 billion of food every year. That’s a huge concentration of buying power, on top of which you have the opportunity to shape food behaviors, food culture, food preferences in those million students. So our work is to inspire these food service directors to shift their buying patterns and be more active in engaging students in the long-term impact of building a new food culture.
We launched something called the New England Food Vision Prize, the idea being to invite all 200 food service directors to bring their best ideas and then team up with another campus to develop new relationships with regional producers and suppliers. They test new products, like kelp for example: They’re contracting with a company in Maine that contracts with local lobstermen to grow kelp for various products on menus on campuses. A couple of colleges entered into contractual relationships with farmers in Western Massachusetts to purchase the entire animal that the farmer would grow for them.
We were really gaining a lot of momentum and energy across the region. And then when you have students all sent home and schools shut down, that puts an end to our work in schools for the time being. But the pandemic has forced us all to change our behavior — everybody’s saying, “OK, maybe just because I always did it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what I should be doing” — and I think this is the moment for regional and sustainable food.
Andrew Kendall is executive director of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, which is based in Boston.