We're pregaming Earth Day this year, mostly because damn, it's getting pretty bleak out there and it's more important than ever to stick to your soil guns and fight for our planet. We asked a handful of industry pros what sustainability meant to them: we'll be publishing their answers throughout the week.

By Chef Claire Menck | Image via iStock

In 2006, I was asked to return to New England Culinary Institute to help develop their new BA program in culinary arts.  

One of the classes I was tasked with developing was a course in the economics of sustainability. This was before The Omnivore’s Dilemma… before anyone was talking about “farm to table.” When I talked about the idea of “food-related diseases” people looked at me like I was insane. There was no scientific connection between diet and health at this point, at least none we knew about. No one really cared about where their food came from, they really only looked at the cost on the invoice.

I’d worked at Henrietta’s Table at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, under the watchful eye of Chef Peter “Big Daddy” Davis, where the lobsters were still flopping around from the boats in Gloucester, MA. I helped dig NECI’s first student garden in Montpelier. I believed in a healthy amount of dirt in one’s diet. But that belief was really intuitive, not borne out by any kind of empirical data.

I’d also lived in a small, rural town in Kansas where I tried to start a culinary program for kids. On one of our first encounters, I pulled a carrot out of the ground and one of the kids started crying. When I asked why she was so upset, she said, “I don’t want to eat dirt! I want the plastic carrots.” Of course, she was talking about the carrots from Walmart, the only grocery store in town.

So when I was tasked with creating this class at NECI I really struggled to even define what sustainability was. For a restaurant, being sustainable means paying the bills first; if you can’t stay open you can’t help anyone else – no local farmer, not your community, not even yourself. But financial solvency is often contrary to a sustainable planet. So how do we think about what is sustainable on the macro and micro levels?

That led me to get my Ph.D. in New Orleans. Sustainability is a whole different gig down there. The question of was bigger: how do we sustain this community and our traditions, many of which were food-related?

It’s all based on relationships, and that is the key. Sustainability in the food system, or any other system, is founded in our social networks. It’s the relationships between the producers and the chefs, whether they are growing plants or raising pigs. It's the one between local government and the food community. It’s the employees who give a shit whether the business survives or not, it’s the growers, the butchers, the waste haulers (who hopefully deal with your compost), the supply people who sell you to-go containers, the customers who will pay for your mindfulness… the media, the politicians… all those folks are the community. At the end of the day, it’s the synthesis of all those parts that make any business “sustainable."

If I had to say anything about the last twenty years of evolution in sustainability, it is that we now collectively appreciate each other more, and the role we all play in the bigger picture.  




Edited and condensed for clarity.

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