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Helene York on Compostable Servingware, Greenhouse Gases and Local Food Sourcing

October 16, 2008

Helene York is the director of the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, who are committed to educating consumers and chefs about how their food choices impact the world around them. Concentrating on such issues as greenhouse gases and sustainable fishing, the foundation seeks to use a combination of education and the purchasing power behind the eighty million meals a year that the Bon Appetit Management Company serves to promote local, sustainable and responsible food. She will be giving a talk at the Whitney Humanities center, room 208, at 4:30 PM today. I was able to get in a few questions with her this morning:

I’ve read online somewhere where you criticized “ideology and folkore.” What was that targeted to?

The biggest misconception about food and climate change is that biodegradable to-go ware and bottled water area  huge part of the problem. They’re not. how much meat and cheese is consumed, how much food is wasted, how many perishable food items are air-freighted are much, much more significant issues in the food and climate change debate than whether we have bottled water and what kind of disposable wear we use. The independent research I’ve seen suggests that there is very little difference between PLA(compostable, corn-based plasticy material) and PET(traditional, polymer-based plastic). Any product that is not made of an intert substance is going to degrade into methane gas in a landfill, a potent greenhouse gas. Even if it’s slightly better or slightly worse, it’s not the primary issue, it’s a sideshow.

So why are they so widely embraced?

I think it’s because people want to do the right thing, and it seems to be a better idea. We also have a misguided notion that we are running out of landfill space. There is a fundamental lack of understanding that sending organic materials to a landfill creates a powerful greenhouse gas.

Lifecycle assesment assesment is just not a consumer-friendly idea. It’s a discipline that only the chemical industry uses in the United States,  and hasn’t been applied to food until very recently.

Could you talk about the foundation’s programs for a little bit?

First was the sustainable seafood program, which we started in 2005. We did a college education tour to 35 universities and in each case, we gave presentation tastings and showed a short, Emmy-nominated film. We also talked to chefs at those schools and let them see the movie: it’s important that not only the consumers get these messages, but also that the people who are ordering the seafood and preparing are knowledgable and passionate about these issues.

Second has been the low-carbon diet program, something we started before An Inconvenient Truth. The premise of the low-carbon diet program is that food service needs to take climate change seriously because the food system creates a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. As a company known for environmentally and socially responsible practices, we couldn’t ignore that issue. Since 1989, Bon Appetit has had a commitment to a minimum of 20% of foods purchased within 150 miles.

What’s more important to reforming the food system – consumer decisions or regulation?

I think that’s a false choice. I think that we need changes in government subsidies and in supply-chain education. We need business action as well, all up and down the supply chain. We need business action as well, all up and down the supply chain. At Bon Appetit Managament Company Foundation, I represent a company that serves a million meals a year. We have very strict rules about what meat we will serve – they cannot use antibiotics, they cannot use hornomnes. We said in 2005 that these are our standards, and we went to suppliers growing that kind of product and they weren’t many. We told them we would buy your product if you make a commitment to these kinds of growing practices.

That was market mechanism – a big purchaser, giving an incentive to growers to change their production practices.

What’s more important, that food be delicious or ecologically sustainable?

They go hand in hand in hand, and I don’t say that to be cute. If food is grown in well cared for soil by workers who take pride in what they do, or in waterway’s where fishermen take pride in what they fish, it will taste better.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 28, 2009 7:27 pm

    Impressive article. It is nice to see someone in the food service industry who truly understands the issues created by organics/compostables going into our landfill, and how degradation in landfills causes problems – not solutions.

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