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Your Customers Want to Know if You are Practicing Sustainability

Markon Cooperative, Salinas, California

Tim York has worked in the produce industry for over 40 years, and is the president of Markon, a produce cooperative. He has held positions with the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and was a founding partner and the first Chairman of the Center for Produce Safety.

After seeing grisly pictures of fish sucking up plastic trash in the ocean and backhoes moving mountains of food waste, customers are more aware than ever before that something has to change. Sustainability has become the buzz word for that movement, just like organic was ten years ago. 

But what exactly qualifies as sustainable practices? In the 1980s, a United Nations commission concluded that human activities were exhausting natural resources. This commission launched an effort to address the problem by focusing on three areas: social (e.g. fair treatment of workers), economic (improving quality of life, profits), and environmental (managing land, water, and biodiversity to ensure their viability for future generations).

Today there are over 400 different programs to certify goods or services as sustainable. The government has USDA Organic, there is Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, GlobalGAP, Seafood Watch, just to name a few.

It’s overwhelming, but my best advice is for you to go back to the original areas outlined by the UN. Start with your own backyard.  How are your workers treated? In the age of #MeToo, several celebrity chefs were found lacking common decency in how they treated workers, especially women. Have you conducted a gut check, and asked employees and others how you and the work environment are perceived, and how they feel they are treated? You may uncover something in your kitchen’s culture that needs to be cleaned up to make it not just a good place to work, but a great place to learn and grow. 

Ugly can be better for you and the planet! There has been tremendous focus on food waste, which has given rise to the popularity of using “ugly” produce as a practical and sustainable option. Are you using a fancy grade citrus for example, when a lower- priced, blemished choice grade would suffice? Don’t pay a premium for products whose appearance doesn’t matter – it’ll save you money and use food that may have been wasted.

Ask your suppliers about the story behind the foods you’re buying, and then make sure to share these stories with your customers. Farmers today are much more aware that customers care about how and where their food is grown, harvested and handled. Make sure that the farmers you buy from share your values when it comes to how workers are treated; prudent use of water, chemicals and land. Your distributor should be talking with farmers and able to share the details with you.

You wield a big responsibility in the work you do. If done well, you have a great sustainability story to tell. Make sure you tell it. Not only about the food you serve, but about the people who prepare it and serve it. Restaurant patrons are hungry—not only for the great meals you prepare, but for a connection to the products you serve. Foster their loyalty and interest by showing them that you care about people and the planet.

Tim York has worked in the produce industry for over 40 years, and is the president of Markon, a produce cooperative. He has held positions with the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and was a founding partner and the first Chairman of the Center for Produce Safety.