Sustainable Food Systems, Part 2
In our previous conversation with John Turenne we learned he is nationally recognized for breaking new ground in the food industry. In this conversation with the inspired President and founder of Sustainable Food Systems, we learn how he got his start in creating his breakthrough company.
AH:What did you do to get started serving sustainable food?
JT:Now keep in mind this was 2001-2002, where an institutional food service, this was not the terminology. We’d started to hear a little bit about organic student movements, about thinking about organic food, and things like that. But I figured it was just a trend, and let me learn about it, and it was that process of learning the big picture of food and the impact that those of us had on so much in that kind of environment, could have on so much and so many in the world around us, that I started to realize: This is not a fad, It can’t be a fad. It can’t be something that comes and goes. This has to happen.
AH:Where did you start?
JT:As I learned what I call, you know, the four distinct pillars of sustainable food, and my decisions could impact whether it be first pillar the environmental impact that food has on the planet. The second pillar was the impact of our local or communities and small farms, and who are we supporting when we spend our dollars? Where does the food go, and what’s happening to our small or mid-size farmers? The third pillar I came to understand was the social concerns about animal welfare, human rights in food production – all those nightmare stories that we’ve come to learn about and the social impact of food production.Then the fourth pillar I came to realize was the sustainability of our own health and well-being, and the physical impact that the food I was serving had on the bodies of my customers. When I stopped and realized that there were negative impacts on all those pillars, you know, I said, It’s more than just bottom line driven. We have to figure this out. We have to come up with a way to change this, and turn this Titanic of an institution at Yale and start providing a better program. So we went through a whole – I could go on for a long time with just the systems and the processes that we came up with to make these changes, but we did it. And once we did it, and once I understood the systems that could be put into place to make it work at an institution like Yale, I realized: This can’t just be happening here, it has to happen on a bigger picture, and farther out.
“It’s the direction I’m going…”
AH:What came next?
JT:I approached my own company and I said, Look, you know, we operate hundreds of universities, not to mention thousands when you start figuring the hospitals and the schools and all the places that our company manages. Let’s start looking at this and doing what we did at Yale at other places. It’s the direction that our industry has to go. And the response I got was: Thank you so much for what you’ve done here at Yale, we think it’s wonderful, but it’s not the direction we really see us wanting to go. And my reaction before I could shut my mouth was: It’s the direction I’m going, thank you for 25 great years of employment, I’m going out.And I started a company, which is Sustainable Food Systems, to start helping others do it. And that was seven years ago.
AH:Can you walk me through a typical day of yours now?
JT:Oh, gosh, it varies, Nancy. But ideally the biggest thing that we focus on is being hired by a private school, let’s say, or a hospital, or even a public school district, to provide kind of like three levels of service if you imagine a menu, you know, like in a restaurant. So the first appetizer or the first service that we provide is called “Identification and Planning.” So we go into – let’s use a private school as an example. We’ll go into a school and immerse ourselves into their food service, understand their current program as it pertains to – I’m going to go back to the systems that I’ve established based on what I learned way back at Yale, and have fine-tuned since – but use this system to assess where they currently are, and then create a plan on where they can go, and how they can make improvements to become more sustainable. That’s the first level of service, we present that back to the client – to the school, or hospital system, or whoever. And say, “Here are the steps you can do.” Again, it’s very systemized so that it’s almost impossible to fail, because it is also a step-by-step approach; it’s not about doing too much, too fast.
AH:How much push-back to you get from people working in the kitchens?
JT:Initially, a good amount. You know, I can tell you, having come from the trenches, change is hard. And we’ve worked in places with like on the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution in West Virginia where I’m walking into a school kitchen with some of these ladies that have been cooking for 30 years, and they’re looking at me saying, Who are you? Where are you from? What are you going to do to me? What are you going to do to my life and my job? What usually the technique that helps get over that initial hump is, you know, my team have these values and principles that make sure we convey to say, It’s okay, we come from your world. I’m not just some passionate, crazy advocate screaming for change. I know what you go through. I did it. You know, I’ve been there, and I know what your challenges are, but I’ve got some cool ideas that can help take what you’re doing and do it even better. And you’re going to probably teach me a few things, too, because you’ve been doing this for so long in your home, and your school here, which is really your home, I’m a guest. I respect that, I’m here as a guest, but let me help try to figure these out.
AH:It seems you are teaching them a whole new ecosystem and how to directly affect the health of the people they are serving.
JT:Absolutely, Nancy. Part of our structure is two-fold; you just nailed it. It’s when we need to convey the technical way to go about changing – the “how,” and if you were standing in front of me you’d see me, I talk with my hands a lot here – but the “how” is the hands, you know, how to go about cooking this, changing this menu, or writing a menu a certain way. But that’s only half the matter, we also teach and train people “why” we need to do this.