Our Heroes: Maisie Greenawalt of Bon Appétit Management Company

Our Hero: Maisie Greenawalt of Bon Appétit Management Company

    As vice president of strategy at the venerable Bon Appétit Management Company, Maisie is a major local and sustainable food hero, and her TEDx Fruitvale has helped shine a light on the issue of farmworker justice.
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The social responsibility efforts of most corporations are met with skepticism by many in the good food movement, but Bon Appétit Management Company, an on-site restaurant service moving swiftly and consistently toward ever more ambitious sustainability standards -- and influencing suppliers, chefs and eaters along the way -- serves for even the most jaded among us as a shining example of a truly mission-driven business, in large part due to the contributions of vice president of strategy Maisie Greenawalt.

Maisie grew up in Santa Cruz, where it was mainstream to eat local eons ago, but rather than preach to the not-yet-converted, she lets the food served in Bon Appétit’s 400-plus cafeterias speak for itself. On labor issues, however, she takes a more direct approach -- her most recent major project, TEDxFruitvale, focused entirely on farmworker justice, a topic that  has only gained serious attention over the last few years.

We recently caught up with Maisie to congratulate her on TEDxFruitvale, get the inside story of Bon Appétit and as  we do with all of Our Heroes, find out more about what brought her to her inspiring work. Here’s what she had to say.

Q. You've contributed a lot to the good food movement over the years, most recently with the organization of TEDxFruitvale, a special conference dedicated to labor issues surrounding food production. The YouTube videoswere amazing – how did the event go in person?

The feeling in the room was incredible. Having so many people focused on farmworkers, who are so often ignored, was truly special. Also, having farmworkers on the stage telling their stories, as well as some listening in the audience (via simultaneous Spanish translation) made the event different from any other I have attended. I was really proud to have been part of making that happen.

Q. And you worked closely with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on the Code of Conduct associated with their enormously successful Fair Food Campaign, which has really helped get labor into the sustainable food conversation these last few years. What role do corporations have to play in the good food movement in general, as well as on the often-ignored labor front?

Because of our size, we also have the chance to shape the practices of large-scale growers and meat producers.  They have to at least listen to us. Corporations have clout that independent restaurants and nonprofits don’t have.

I think corporations like us have two roles to play. First, we can support small-scale agriculture in a really consistent way. With our thousand-plus Farm to Fork partners, we can take as much as they can grow, we can pay a fair price for it, at the time of delivery if necessary. We're even starting to sign up for a season’s worth of carrots, onions and potatoes. Second, because of our size, we also have the chance to shape the practices of large-scale growers and meat producers. Right after TEDxFruitvale, I had a conversation with a big produce supplier who said to me, “You're really stirring things up!” And I was like, “Yeah! Let’s talk about labor!” They have to at least listen to us. Corporations have clout that independent restaurants and nonprofits don’t have. Unfortunately many don’t always wield that power for good.

Q. You were also instrumental in the creation and launch of Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program in 1999, the Eat Local Challenge in 2005, and the Low Carbon Diet and Calculator in 2007. That’s kind of mind-blowing that these projects happened at a company that serves 120 million meals a year. So which project has been most exciting, and what do you see as the biggest milestone – so far – in the good food movement?

The first Eat Local Challenge Day in the fall of 2005 was a real watershed moment for us. We had never done a companywide promotion before. We give the chefs and managers as much latitude as possible to create menus and events that are right for their specific customers and their region, so asking everyone to hold an event on the same day was a risk from a company-culture standpoint. It was a big request — cook a meal using only ingredients from within 150 miles, except salt. Remember, this was before The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, before locavore was in common usage.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit. We went back to the chefs and managers and suggested we cancel the challenge. They said “No! We have this farmer and that farmer lined up; we have our menu all planned! You can’t cancel it!” So we went ahead. We had anticipated a little resistance, but instead we got this incredible team and community effort. The other thing that was so exciting was that we had actually planned the Challenge thinking it would illustrate the loss of biodiversity, that the menus would be similar around the country. However, that wasn’t the case at all! It was the opposite — I was just blown away by the different crops and dishes that our chefs featured.

Q. You said in your opening remarks at the TedX event that you “have a pretty cool job.” It must be neat to feel like you're effecting change on a large scale. There must be some frustrations, though – what is not moving fast enough? What keeps you up at night?

It still surprises me, sometimes  just how big the gap is between the good food movement and industrial agriculture, how little both sides understand each other. It’s frustrating but also exciting to overcome. Last week we were talking to a major meat producer about starting up a program that could get certified by Food Alliance[a rigorous third-party sustainability certifier]. And this company was so floored by what we were proposing they do. They said, “Everything we've done has always been aimed at reducing costs in production. No one has ever asked us to do things that are inefficient, that cost more.”  I'm still not sure they get the reasoning behind our requests. The partnership isn’t necessarily going to happen, but it feels great to be able to ask them those questions and introduce them to new ideas.

What really keeps me up at night, however, is the labor issue — that I've been working  on it for several years now, but I still don’t have a clear answer. After TEDxFruitvale, a large company approached me wanting advice on how to make sure the food they served was grown fairly. And I couldn’t just say, Here’s what you do. I'm frustrated by just how complicated the commodity supply chain is, the lack of transparency.

Q. I worked for several years for a concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park, and the food – particularly the food that was served in the employee dining rooms, which typically fed at least a few hundred people – was horrible. Can you speak to the difficulties of creating really delicious (let alone sustainable) food in an industrial setting?

Unfortunately, as you know, America is addicted to cheap food, and at places like Yellowstone, cost is definitely a challenge. Not just food cost but labor cost. Most people assume that our food costs are higher than our competitors, but it’s not always true that fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are more expensive than processed commodities. We do have higher labor costs because  we hired skilled staff who cook everything from scratch, but they can also save us money — we don’t waste any of those quality ingredients, we turn them into stock, sauces, soups.

Q. Thanks no doubt in part to your work there, Bon Appétit stands alone as a shining example of a relatively large company that is working – quickly and efficiently – to get sustainably produced food onto tables in unlikely settings. A lot of people within the movement, I think, ignore the contributions of companies like yours, but of course, because you guys feed so many people, you are really well-positioned to create a giant impact. How are you changing perceptions, especially with people outside of the movement?

Well, first of all, thank you. We hope we're having an impact. The biggest way we try to reach people not in “the choir” is through our diners. You know, lots of university students do care about things like climate change and animal and worker welfare, but some just want to eat lunch before class. Same goes for our corporate and museum guests. We try not to preach at them, but instead to reach them through flavor first — we want them to go, “Wow, this food tastes amazing!” and then maybe notice that it came from a local farm. (We have signs for all our Farm to Fork vendors.) We also treat things like our Low Carbon Diet Day and Eat Local Challenge Day as opportunities to really inform our guests about how their food choices make a difference in greenhouse gas production and supporting farmers and their communities.

Q. On a personal level, what brings you to this work? Was there an “aha” moment for you?

We depend on farmworkers to pick our food. They deserve the same rights and protections as workers in any other sector — the right to get paid for hours worked, to be eligible for workers compensation and unemployment, to not be sexually harassed.

There was for the farmworker piece, for sure — I talked about this a little in my introduction to TEDxFruitvale. In 2009, I wasn’t really sure where I stood on the immigration issue. I was swayed by arguments that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to get drivers' licenses. And then I went to Immokalee, Florida, at the invitation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to see the conditions for tomato pickers firsthand. My eyes were really opened. This wasn’t about health insurance, or overtime. Those are red herrings. This was about basic human rights. No one, no matter how they entered this country, deserves to be threatened with physical violence by their employers, to be treated like animals and locked in overcrowded trailers at night.

Q. Along those lines – where did you grow up, what was the food culture like for you there (at home and in your community) and how do you feel that informs your work as an advocate for sustainably produced food?

I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, where buying from local, organic farms has long been mainstream. My mother is half Italian and obsessed with India, so both of those cuisines were prevalent in our household. My comfort foods are curries, Asian noodles or pastina with Parmigiano Reggiano.

Q. I presume like most passionate people, you work pretty hard. How do you unwind?

I try hard to take a real vacation each year — multi-week, foreign destination, usually involves good food. This year was France, next year will be trekking in Nepal (not for the food); in the past few years I've been to Belize, Thailand and Vietnam, and China. I also get regular massages, but I have to admit, I spend the first half of the time on the table thinking about work. More mundane relaxations — riding my cruiser bike to the Santa Cruz beach and needlepointing.

Q. We usually ask Our Heroes to choose (say you had a disposable magic wand) one – and only one! – specific policy they would like to see change. What would you change, if you could?

We depend on farmworkers to pick our food. They deserve the same rights and protections as workers in any other sector — the right to get paid for hours worked, to be eligible for workers compensation and unemployment, to not be sexually harassed.  (They are exempt from many federal employment laws.)

Q. Last question: Thanks for letting us interview you, your work really inspires us here at Ecocentric. Who are some of your Heroes?

In food, one of my heroes is Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the director of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Jenn makes a complicated issue simple and engaging no matter how much her audience does or doesn’t know about seafood. She’s been a tireless advocate for sustainable seafood, and I think the Seafood Watch program has had a huge impact on consumer awareness and industry purchasing.

Years ago I saw a documentary about Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC and her story has inspired me ever since. You know, she was just a 19-year-old Yale student when she won the design contest, and she had to fight so hard to get it built the way she imagined it. I found her confidence in her own vision incredible. It’s easy to be confident about what you're doing when everyone agrees with you, not so much when you're swimming against the tide of public opinion.

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