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The Greening of Food Service: National Geographic Society

This podcast is the first in a three-part series on "The Greening of Food Service," sponsored by Sodexo.

At the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington, D.C., as many as a thousand people per day eat in the dining center -- the majority of the Society's staff.'s executive editor, Joel Makower, recently spoke with executive chef Brian Horne, about what goes on behind the scenes at the National Geographic Society.

Joel Makower: Brian, let's start with telling me a little bit about what National Geographic Society has done so far to green its food service?

Brian Horne: National Geographic Society's whole passion and vision is to save the environment, help the environment, and to keep the environment intact for future generations, and, to that end, they have asked us, as a food service contractor, to do everything in our power to get to that point. The first step that we took was we now only have one item of all of our to-go ware that we use in our facility that is not either compostable or readily recyclable, and that is our plastic cutlery.

Other than that, we have replaced everything with either bagasse-based or corn-based products. All of our paper goods, such as napkins, are at least second-generation recycled. Pretty much everything has been replaced to an environmentally friendly standard.

As for food itself, about a year and a half ago, National Geographic asked us to help them to attain their Platinum LEED certification -- they currently have Gold. And, to that end, they've asked us, as a food service vendor, to bring all of our food service purchases to 25 percent meeting the lead guidelines, which would be Rainforest Alliance Certified, Food Alliance Certified, Protective Harvest Certified produced within 100 miles of the facility, Marine Stewardship Council Certified, or meeting the USDA organic standards.

We are about a year and a half in, and we've gotten our purchases to basically be between 17 and 21 percent. We have a couple of more years before we go through the actual auditing process, but we're working our way towards that end.

JM: I imagine this requires a lot of coordination with suppliers, staff, and others. How much of a challenge is that?

BH: I think the biggest challenge, to be honest, is that while in theory there's a great demand for these products, a lot of times, when a business sits down and looks at the realization of costs behind some of them, it makes them back off a little bit.

They may have a supply-and-demand sort of an issue, where your vendors don't know if they're going to have enough movement on a product to carry it readily. And then, someone like myself, who's using it readily and who has a client whose passion is nothing but this and the cost they understand and the cost ramifications they're willing to accept, it becomes hard sometimes to source out these products, because you find a good product at a reasonable cost but they're out of stock at times, and when they're out of stock, it creates a void for us in order to give our guests what they need. I think that's probably the biggest challenge.

JM: What are some of the things that have been fairly easy in terms of the cost and the availability?

BH: Mostly products such as organics, fair trade, rainforest-alliance, and food that's within 100 miles of where we are. We have a lot of local bakeries here in the D.C. area that we can use to get that credit. Our produce vendor is great at sourcing out local farms for us to use, anything along those lines. We have a couple of great vendors who do organics and natural foods, and with the LEED certification, if we can find foods that are both organic and fair trade, or fair trade and rainforest, we actually get two credits for each of those.

So, those are the easiest things. Like I said, the hardest things are the manufactured goods, again, mostly the to-go containers, things along those lines.

JM: And that's just because they're made in such small numbers and they're just not as readily available at the quantities at which you use them?

BH: I find it's cyclical. What ends up happening is at the beginning of a fiscal year for companies, they get really into the idea of being green. At the beginning of a budget, nobody is behind or ahead on their budget, so they make a push to go towards the greening of their company.

Then, what ends up happening is orders from a bunch of different people start coming into these manufacturers, and they gear up to produce, and they're thinking, "Wow, we might actually be able to hold on to this product because we do have a big calling for it." As the year progresses, especially in the economy we have now, people find they're either behind their budgets or they're not quite meeting where they wanted to be.

A lot of times, the thing that gets cut would be a lot of the green programs for a lot of companies that really are not passionate about it. What ends up happening is manufacturers who are producing it see a decline in their green products, so they take their entire production line and they'll shift it over back to maybe the not-so-earth-friendly products, such as the No. 6 plastics, things along those lines because, obviously, people are still demanding those.

When someone like myself comes along who uses them a lot and every day, sometimes there's that gap between the time when the production line can be switched back over to the sustainable manufacturing and when we get the product.

JM: Meanwhile, you're sitting there waiting for it to come so that you've got a supply-and-demand gap. But having said all this, is going green today easier when it comes to food service than it was a few years ago?

BH: Absolutely. I've been part of companies going green for about the last six or seven years, and about six or seven years ago, if I had asked a vendor about bagasse, they would have looked at me like I was speaking another language, basically. There were a few who knew about it, a few who were thinking about doing it, but now I have five or six vendors who at least carry some form of an ecologically friendly product.

Catalogs in the past, you wouldn't even have had maybe a half of a page devoted to it. Now, some of your mainline vendors will have entire sections devoted to it -- 10, 12, 15 pages, and they've also, I've noticed, brought down the amount of items you have to purchase through them. In the past, it might have been we had to move 40 cases a month, and now it might be coming down to 16 or 18, so I think it's moving in the right direction. It's still that gap between realistic expectations of what it's going to cost, and then what it ends up costing if you want to go fully green.

JM: And bagasse is a fiber material, just for people who don't, that remains after sugarcane or some other sorghum stocks are crushed to extract their juice ... and it's used for what?

BH: We use it for everything here that is to go. We have three-compartment containers for people who are taking their dinners to go, smaller containers for people that are taking their dinners to go. Anything that we used to use Styrofoam for, or things to leave the premises, we now use the bagasse.

JM: So, what are a couple things that you've learned along the way that could be helpful to others who are just starting down this path?

BH: To be realistic with your client. To let them know, not only cost impact, which is very easy for them to understand, but to understand other impacts, and I'll give you an example. If you want to go fully sustainable on seafood, there are a number of different outlets out there who will give you their idea of sustainability, but it doesn't always mesh one group to another.

What ends up happening sometimes, if you're really passionate and you make this your whole goal, you may have to turn around and say to some groups, "I apologize, but we can't offer shrimp at this time because we believe in the sustainability of our oceans, and, unfortunately, we cannot get sustainable shrimp at this time," depending on how big of a company you're with, the contracts you have, liabilities behind those contracts, because some smaller fisheries that may have a sustainable product may not have the required food safety programs and/or necessary liability insurance, if you will, for what your company wants to do.

JM: Interesting. So, finally, how do you measure success? Is it measured in lead points, or is there some other metric?

BH: I use, actually, a couple of things. Obviously, our percentage of sales is what my client has asked me for, but here at National Geographic, the easiest way I can tell is by feedback from our clients.

We have, again, a population of a little over 1,000 people who, every single one of them just about, is passionate about one aspect of the sustainability part of what we're doing. And if I have a day where I get compliments from people saying that I am really helping the environment, even if it's just from as simple a thing as getting green beans from a farm that's only 45 miles away as opposed to somewhere in the Midwest or out west further, that's how I measure it here.

It's really their passion, it's really what they care about, and you can really measure it by both your sales, if the sales are going up because people are making the conscious choice to come to your café based on the philosophy of sustainability or if they're going elsewhere, and also, obviously, as we go towards the LEED Platinum certification, the fact that our purchases are slowly increasing to where we need them to be.

But conversely, last year was the first year we really went through this, and we were actually able to generate a below-budgeted food cost, which was really, to me, a metric that showed it can be done. It took a lot of work just to track down and find sources, and all of those things, but, at the end of the year, we actually were better in our food costs than when we were not as sustainable the year before.

JM: Terrific. Brian, thank you very much.

BH: You're very welcome.

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