Snapshots of a Sustainable Food System

We eat with the hope that our food comes from clean, responsible and perhaps even picturesque places, but we really eat blindly, without any evidence that our food got to us in a way that supports our values.

by Anne-Marie Green

Considering how much time we spend eating each day, rarely do we ask ourselves: where does our food come from? Who feeds us? These are questions I personally find troubling as a devoted foodie and an environmentalist. We eat with the hope that our food comes from clean, responsible and perhaps even picturesque places, but we really eat blindly, without any evidence that our food got to us in a way that supports our values.

In search of some “evidence,” I endeavored to photograph and learn about some of the food partners of BC Dining, including the kitchens of BC Dining itself. I explored four arenas of the greater food system, visiting two producers (Ward’s Berry Farm and North Coast Seafood), one provider (BC Dining) and one waste handler (Save That Stuff), in order to understand my food better than I did before. At every site, I encountered overwhelmingly passionate people, and was dazzled by the complex and innovative processes behind every meal. I hope these photos empower and inform you in the same way they did me, and that they may satisfy at least a bit of your curiosity of the origin of our food.

Ward’s Berry Farm is located in Sharon, Massachusetts, and supplies Boston College with vibrant produce like squash, peaches, tomatoes, zucchini and pumpkin. The process of it getting from soil to campus begins with picking. Jenna (photo 1a) and Rory (photo 1c) are year-round pickers, but Ward’s also employs several part time workers during the harvesting season, who, as Rory explained, are typically young people who come from as far as Ecuador looking for temporary work. While Rory viewed the picking process fondly — savoring long, sunny days spent outdoors — he also described it as grueling. Pickers go out in almost all weather conditions, including heavy rain and hail. He considered this past season to be unusually rainy, actually over-watering many of the crops.

This picked produce travels to the factory to be washed and packaged (photo 1b). In the factory, two young women wash yellow squash grown at Ward’s in order to send them in a CSA box, which are assembled down the hall. Ward’s does a local farm share with several colleges, providing their “farmer’s choice boxes” to BC Dining’s CSA Program (Community Shared Agriculture). CSA Members get a weekly surprise box of assorted produce grown at Ward’s, often with various squash species, including this yellow one. Every box is like a food puzzle: what dishes can be made so that none of the vegetable is wasted? My suggestion for turnips: bake turnip “fries” with salt and paprika, and sautee the greens (which are even more nutritious than kale) with maple syrup or honey to cut the bitterness.

While post-consumer food waste is an issue commonly tackled through composting programs, farms themselves also generate a significant amount of food waste. Ward’s efficiently feeds their excess produce to a small pen of pigs (photo 1d). The pigs gobble up produce with baffling speed — they finish one squash the size of a liter soda bottle before you can blink.

North Coast Seafoods, a seafood company based in Boston’s Drydock,  sources all of BC Dining’s seafood. Andrew Wilkinson, a Seafood Specialist and Chef R&D with North Coast, gave me a tour of the fishing docks and North Coast’s processing facility. Andrew and I got there early enough in the morning to see a fewthat a few North Coast-sponsored fishermen were unloading freshly caught Redfish, a fairly underutilized but still delicious local deep sea species. Because the species is a small to medium sized fish, much of what the fishermen bring in cannot be sold to restaurants as a standard fillet size. Andrew’s creative solution iswas to sort and source the smaller catches to local primary schools for a “fish n’ chips” school lunch. Most primary public schools lack healthful and fresh school lunches, he said, so what better way to make use of local, sustainably caught Redfish than to feed our next generation?

Next, Andrew showed me around the processing facility. I was stunned to witness the complex technology that produces the seafood that we, especially as Bostonians, love so much. Salmon filets travelled through a conveyor belt to remove hundreds of small bones, and employees removed the rest with tweezers (photo 2a). In such a high tech facility, none of the bones, guts or fish heads get wasted. North Coast collects these inedible or unwanted fish parts and creates “gurry”: a highly nutrient dense mixture used in fish oil supplements, pet food and fertilizer. Lastly, while touring the facility I soon realized that it smelled…normal. Andrew explained that when fish are removed from the ocean, bacteria can flourish, materializing in that infamous fishy smell. To prevent this, hanging from the ceiling throughout the facility were hoses of ozonated, or electrically charged, water that when sprayed on fish, it eliminates all surface bacteria so that the “fishy” smell disappears. Andrew excitedly asked me to press my nose right up against a half cut bass to discover the true fishy scent for myself. I sniffed it reluctantly, but it was actually pleasant, earthy and natural. Andrew said it was his favorite smell.  

BC Dining serves approximately 22,000 meals to thousands of students everyday. But behind the kitchens, it’s clear there are diverse and familial communities within each dining hall (see 3d for a window into the community members at Hillside). Student employees work hard every day to feed their fellow students (photo 3c), and all employees handle massive amounts of food each day for students’ breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks (photo 3b).

While there is significant consistency across dining halls, each unit adds a unique flare to the food that it serves. This is excellently embodied in the cookies. Each dining hall has a signature cookie recipe, like the wide and chunky Hillside cookie, the giant Stuart cookie and famously gooey Eagle’s cookie. This is because the bakery for all BC Dining baked goods is located right behind the Eagles Nest, home to Executive pastry chef Tim Fonseca, a baking master with a competitive edge. Tim makes sure to add a little extra love and chocolate chips to uphold Eagle Nests’ rumored status as the best cookie on campus.

Interning with BC Dining’s sustainability team has given me the privilege of working beside cooks, like Derek (Photo 3a), during FRESH to Table Kitchen Demos on Wednesdays. Every week, the chefs at Lower and the BC Dining sustainability team collaborate to serve and give samples of a dish that is either Fairly Traded, Regional, Equitable, Sustainable or Healthy. Students know this as the night with free (and delicious) samples, but the chefs, managers, and interns like myself consider Wednesday nights as sacred opportunities to share our passion for sustainable food. While I enjoy virtually all FRESH Demos, especially the dessert samples, I particularly enjoy when we sample underutilized fish species, like hake and pollock. This reminds me that we e have power as consumers of seafood: if we are willing to experiment beyond the typical seafood menu, and are persistent in pursuing responsible sourcing, we can help to balance our overfished oceans by trying one of the many underutilized species.

Save That Stuff is the processing facility that collects all of Boston College’s recycling, trash and food waste. While students toss food scraps in bins labelled “compost,” Save That Stuff does not necessarily compost the food that comes to them; they do something a little more novel with exciting ramifications for the future of organic waste handling. First processed to extract non-organic materials like food packaging, food scraps are then handled by engineers like Conrad (photo 4a), who mix the food in a chemically balanced Engineered Bio-Slurry (EBS). Marc Galardi, Business Development Manager of Save That Stuff, explained that certain companies are obligated to send Save That Stuff their pre-consumer food if the waste total exceeds 200 lbs. This rule explains the unsettling amount of Ben & Jerry’s pints (photo 4d) being stored in the food waste processing room when I visited the facility in November. The pints of Brownie Batter ice cream had never been enjoyed; Marc explained that they were likely in the facility due to labeling inconsistencies or allergy conflicts, which he said was not unusual. In these cases, waste production is left out of the consumer’s control, rendering even the most faithful environmentalist, like myself, feeling lost and helpless.

But what was done with the EBS restored my excitement for proper waste management practices — after the EBS is stored in giant, dark green industrial cylinders, it is sent to a wastewater treatment facility in Lawrence, MA, to be combined with septic waste. This facility not only converts the gas of this mixture into energy through the process of anaerobic digestion, but also transforms the solid remains into fertilizer pellets. Conrad appeared delighted that the resource potential of food waste is harvested nearly to full completion at Save That Stuff.

With Save That Stuff, the food circle is essentially closed. Our food is grown at the farm or caught from the sea, prepared and consumed, and then, ideally, re-harvested to create energy or enrich soil to restart the entire cycle. It should be noted, however, that while these photos represent a microscopic window into the realm of our food, this glimpse is also somewhat utopic. Not always is our food picked by Jenna or Rory, our fish handled with so much care by Andrew, or recycled properly by Marc or Conrad. This project, while partly curiosity-satisfying, truly leaves me wanting to know more: is there an uglier side of food production, and what would that look like?  

Indeed, only a small percentage of our food is grown and caught locally by sustainable and caring producers (about nine percent in Massachusetts), and unless we actively compost, our food scraps are wasted in an incinerator or landfill. If we allow ourselves the time and research, we can make small decisions that support food production as it should be: regional, sustainable and efficient. In this way, our consumer power and awareness of sustainability become tools to bring a beautiful, responsible food system to fruition — one of which we can be unwaveringly proud.

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