Green Beat: is Café Mac sustainable?

By Shasta Webb

When you step foot into Café Mac, or approach the counter at Scotty’s or the Grille, do you ever stop to think about the source of your food? Is it locally produced? Is it organic or conventional? Was it humanely obtained? Is it REAL?Abby Colehour ’12, the student appointed to monitor and promote sustainability in Café Mac, set out to answer all of these questions for the student body. On March 1, Colehour and the Bon Appéit staff presented a comprehensive report of data about Café Mac food and discussed progress made toward incorporating “real” food into the daily menu.

In order to distribute the food into specific categories, Colehour employed the definitions of “real” food provided by the Real Food Challenge organization. The organization defines “real food” as food that is locally and community based; fairly made; ecologically sound; and humanely produced. Real Food Challenge focuses on raising awareness about real food and challenging citizens everywhere to consume fair, local, ecologically sound, and humane foods. Real Food Challenge created a “Real Food Calculator,” which Colehour used to collect information about Bon Appéit products.

For each type of food, including meat, dairy, staple items (such as rice or beans), baked goods, produce, fish and seafood, coffee, and other beverages, Colehour completed a breakdown according to her organizing scheme.

According to her data, based on tracking the source and money spent on products purchased over the course of October 2009, 72% of all Bon Appetit food falls under the “conventional” category, meaning it is not necessarily organically, locally, or fairly produced or ecologically sound. However, in the other 28% of foods available to students, 16% is locally grown, 3% is fair, 13% is ecologically sound, and 3% is considered humane.

Twenty-eight percent “real trade” might not seem like a particularly high statistic, but some students were impressed at the figure. Joe Macula ’13, a regular connoisseur of Café Mac meals, explained that 28% seemed like a pretty high number.

“Compared to other schools I think [28%] is high. We could still do better though and Mac should focus on the actual percentage points instead of how we stack up to other schools.”

Colehour explained that there are several limitations to ushering in more “real” product. Researching the source of foods can be timely and complicated. This is one reason why research about Bon Appetit items is not available on a more regular basis. Additionally, some companies lack transparency, meaning they are not willing to share information about a particular product.

As far as changing the items that Bon Appétit offers, limitations stem from the fact that the company has two main distributors to streamline ordering. This means that if a certain item is not available from one of the two primary distributors, it is more expensive and less efficient to obtain. Cost and seasonal availability also have a large effect on whether Bon App éit can introduce new items.

On the corporate level, Bon Appétit has been discussing ways to increase the amount of money spent on real food, as well as talking with the distributors about obtaining access to healthier, more local foods. Bon Appétit, according to its website, “was the first food service company to address the issues related to where our food comes from and how it is grown.” Today it remains the largest restaurant service that commits a “high level of commitment to socially responsible practices” as well as increasing consumption of sustainably produced foods.

Though it would seem like the average student, who generally depends on Café Mac for up to 19 meals a week, would not have much power in influencing a large company to further increase its level of sustainable food, there is actually plenty students can do.

First, simply choosing “real” food, labeled on all the menu signs at each Café Mac station, will cause the demand for local, sustainable, and humanely produce foods will go up, which will eventually alter the amount of “conventional” foods Bon Appétit purchases.

Palmer Fliss ’11 explained that the information presented on the signs in Café Mac about local, organic, or sustainable products influences the way he and other students choose to eat.

“It would be a good idea to have a list of the organic or local foods displayed in front of the entrance everyday so people would know what to look for before they go in.”Fliss said.

Second, students are always welcome to request specific items with the comment card system next to the north entrance of Café Mac. Students can also become involved with MULCH, the on-campus organization devoted to gardening and producing healthy, local food.

In the near future, real food supporters can logon to realfoodchallenge.org and participate in the Real Food Summit that will take place at Macalester March 12 to 14. Find out how to get involved in this fun, informative weekend online.

Information about Bon Appetit is available on their website, bamco.com. Any questions about Café Mac’s progress toward higher sustainability can be directed to Colehour at [email protected]