John Birdsall, the talented food writer at my old paper, the East Bay Express, has just written a feature about a woman whose ideals took her from being the chef at one of the Bay Area's best restaurants to the kitchens of a suburban hospital chain. Her mission was to revamp their institutional cuisine, introducing not just flavor but organic and locally grown ingredients. She has encountered enormous resistance from the cooks and dietitians, but one of the biggest obstacles she has come up against is that most of the hospitals' ingredients come from companies like US Foodservice and Sysco, the United States' largest supplier of everything kitchen-oriented. These mega-suppliers attitude toward the sustainable food movement? A small niche, nothing to get behind, really.
By coincidence, Slate has just published a piece by Ulrich Boser on just how much of the restaurant industry Sysco supplies. His focus is on how many restaurants simply reheat and serve Sysco products at premium prices, but the article gives you a better idea of the breadth of the food supply chain that the corporation controls. (Though I never worked for anyone who heated and served Sysco to customers, every kitchen I ever worked in was stocked with Sysco-brand products, from dried beans and plastic wrap to frozen lasagna for staff meals.)
Commercial/institutional kitchens are dependent on these massive suppliers' products to keep food costs low enough to stay in business. If we are interested in furthering the organic revolution, perhaps we should broaden the scope of our activism and purchasing power, not just focusing on public policy and our local grocery stores but also large companies like Sysco, Aramark, and US Foodways. Not only could we organicize ourselves, we could better feed our young, our old, our sick, and anyone else dependent on institutional cuisine for sustenance.