On a chilly day in February, the heat was on for Chef Jay Keller and Bon Appétit General Manager Davina Kwong. Standing amid platters of colorful ingredients and hot plates in the Hanson Plaza Cafeteria, the two chopped mushrooms, seared salmon, and tossed arugula. They were racing against the clock to transform a selection of ingredients into a full meal in just 30 minutes in the Sustainable Food Challenge.

The challenge was inspired by the popular Food Network program “Iron Chef.” Campus community members interested in learning more about sustainability issues in the food system and curious diners alike were treated to the cooking spectacle, sponsored by the Bon Appétit Company Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company that manages Gallaudet’s food services, and hosted by Bon Appétit Fellow Carolina Fojo.

The approximately 35 audience members suggested ingredients from among the seasonal and locally-grown offerings laid out. Fojo complemented the challenge with a discussion about sustainable and healthful practices in the Gallaudet dining service. The University’s new coffee vendor, Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company of Crofton, Md., was also on hand to provide free samples.

A climate of sustainability

The effort was part of an ongoing sustainability initiative by Bon Appétit in general and the company’s Gallaudet operation in particular that has led to more environmentally-friendly products, as well as purchasing policies that support fair labor practices.

“Besides providing tasty food for all to love, a part of our daily duties as the food service provider here on campus is to educate those around us about food,” said Kwong. “Where does it come from? How can our food choices affect the environment? How can we at Gallaudet University come together and make a difference? Events like the Sustainable Food Challenge provide us with the platform to do just that.”

Part of that education includes explaining why some ingredients are in short supply, or come from different sources than what students are used to.

“Students expect to see tomatoes on their cheeseburgers,” said Keller. “So we strive to provide that, which is not easy in the winter.”

A growing number of students want to see environmental practices in their dining facilities, Keller and Kwong have found. The two have worked with members of the group Green Gallaudet and other students as they implemented more carbon-cutting programs. Now, the chef and manager have prioritized social and economic sustainability as well. Programs include keeping revenue within the region by buying from local farmers and distributors, opting for condiment dispensers instead of individual packets, and eliminating trays to cut down on food waste.

Most of the milk, yogurt, buttermilk, and even ice cream in the student cafeteria come from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pa. Ground beef and apples come from Legacy Manor Farm of Boonsboro, Md.

“While most commercial beef comes from large, congested feed lots in the West, our burgers come from free-roaming Angus and Wagyu cattle on Sam and Katherine Ecker’s farm, just an hour-and-a-half from Gallaudet,” explained Keller. The apples also come from the Eckers, who store their fall harvest in oxygen-regulated cold storage. “We can have local apples all year long,” he said.

Fairness philosophies

While Keller and Kwong prepared the food during the challenge, Fojo explained one initiative about which she is particularly passionate: those crucial tomatoes. During the winter months, Florida is the closest source of the salad bar and burger platter staple. In that area, Fojo said, growers too often exploit immigrant laborers. Groups like the Coalition of Immakolee Workers have exposed low wages and harsh working conditions that the workforce encounters. In response, Bon Appétit created a growers’ agreement. The company will only buy from those producers who sign on and commit to certain practices.

“Now we can say with confidence that when we serve winter tomatoes from Florida in our cafeterias, they come from growers who are treating their workers fairly,” said Fojo.

Fojo and Kwong also fielded questions from the audience. Topics included hormones in meat (Bon Appétit has an rBGH-free policy for its beef, Fojo explained) and food contamination for people with allergies (a food educator and health counselor in the audience discussed some of the dangers).

In the end, the cooks completed a three-dish meal just in time. The menu included pan-seared wild-caught salmon on a bed of oyster mushrooms, pan-fried chicken with grilled apples, and a salad of arugula and Swiss chard with goat cheese and radishes.

“There wasn’t a bite left on the serving plates by the time the students were done,” Fojo later reported on the Bon Appétit blog.
The food challenge was just one part of an ongoing effort, Kwong explained. She already has her eye on other schools’ sustainability efforts, including more events like the competition, and establishing an on-campus garden.

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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