From Dollars And Cents To Common Sense: John TurenneFri 07 Oct 2011
Story by Elizabeth Keyser
For 25 years, John Turenne fed large amounts of food to large numbers of people. Food was a commodity and the criteria was cost. Then he had an epiphany.
Today, Turenne, president and founder of Sustainable Food Systems in Wallingford, CT, is the leader in the movement to bring sustainable food to institutions like universities, hospitals, and school districts. He led the behind-the-scenes team that made Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” work in the Huntington, West Virginia school system. He’s one of nine chefs chosen to create the Chef Move to School program, part of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity.
Turenne’s background in the conventional food industry makes him eminently suited for his role in the sustainable food movement. At Aramark, the mammoth food services corporation, Turenne managed dining programs at Wesleyan, Choate Rosemary Hall School, and Yale University.
“How well I performed for my company was based on how much we could reduce costs,” he says. He reduced labor and food costs, and increased efficiency and sales. Fewer cooks meant more processed food. Convenience over quality.
In 2001, as he prepared to feed 6,000 students at a football game, Yale’s president called. He wanted Turenne to meet a parent.
It was Alice Waters. The owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated restaurant in Berkeley, California, had become a missionary for sustainable food.
Waters wanted a tour of Yale’s kitchen. “That was the lightening strike,” says Turenne, “I gave her the tour. She gave me a copy of ‘Fast Food Nation.’ ” Waters inscribed it “This is required reading.”
Sustainable food? Turenne didn’t know what it was. Waters “made me understand the impact food has. That’s when I realized food has a face and a story that could be wonderful or not so wonderful.” He learned about the damage big food causes to animals, people and the earth; and to health and nutrition. Food was central.
Turenne’s task was to make Water’s vision work at Yale. But how? At Chez Panisse a small army of chefs fed 100 people a night. At Yale, Turenne and his chefs fed 6000 people three times a day, seven days a week. Turenne adapted the processes. He limited choice of food, minimized overproduction and waste. “Imagine the amount of waste having so many stations. That’s not cost-effective,” he says. He “creatively orchestrated menus,” increasing costs in some areas, decreasing costs in other. “The apple costs more but you’re not throwing out 10 apples.”
Turenne designed and implemented a nationally recognized program that was expanded to Yale’s 12 dining halls. The program at Yale changed his life. “I decided I’m not going back,” he said. He told Aramark the industry had to change. They weren’t ready for it, but Turenne was. He started Sustainable Food Systems so he and his team could execute his mission of “Making the world a better place through better food.” In the last 10 years he’s consulted for and implemented sustainable food programs in schools, hospitals and corporations, including Harvard Medical School, the New Hampshire Department of Education, Kaiser Permanente and the Culinary Institute of America.
In Huntington, West Virginia, working with Jamie Oliver on the Food Revolution – Season 1, he not only had to help redesign the lunch program, he assuaged the bruised egos of cafeteria and school district staff. “They’d look at us with dagger eyes.” But Turenne understood where they were coming from. He’d been there. “I could leverage the fact I’d come from a conventional food industry, not many people can say that. Its empathy and response, a style and reputation.”
“Our process is first to identify where they are and where they want to go. We don’t go in and say let’s change the menu or recipes. We facilitate. You guys drive the boat. Then we’ll look at the ingredients and say, here’s an alternative. ” They introduced a vegetable-rich homemade tomato sauce, added pureed beans to the Sloppy Joes, and broccoli to pasta and cheese. He learned to make the most of the USDA Commodity Food Program; instead of getting processed chicken nuggets, he could order real, whole meat chicken.
“As the USDA sees the demand for fresh and raw, they’ll start to provide more,” he said, “It’s supply and demand.”
What makes Turenne proudest? “What fills my heart with the most pride is when I see the actual stakeholders of the institutions — the cooks, the food service directors — become the champions of the cause, just like I became at Yale.” When Turenne’s team leaves a client site, the new sustainable food program will be sustainable only through the work of these stakeholders.
In West Virginia, it’s working. The cooks and staff back the program “because ultimately it’s good for the kids. They told me ‘We can’t imagine going back to doing what we were doing.’”
By Elizabeth Keyser - a version of this article was featured in the Fairfield Green Food Guide, where it won 1st place in the 2011 CT Press Club Awards for best feature article written specifically for the web.
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