Sustainable Food Systems Comes to Fairfield

By Analiese Paik

John Turenne, Founder of Sustainable Food Systems (right), was the surprise guest of the day at the annual Food for Thought event in Fairfield.  He’s pictured with Chef Jeff and his mobile, wood-fired brick oven.

I don’t remember how many years it’s been, possibly six or seven, since I first met Chef John Turenne. Along with a rather large group of passionate parent advocates pushing hard for reform in Fairfield Public Schools’ cafeterias, I listened with awe as he and the headmaster of The Unquowa School shared the steps involved in transitioning the school to a sustainable lunch program. We only hoped that one day our school system would hire him and his business, Sustainable Food Systems, to work with staff, parents and students to implement a similar program.

Here we are, many generations of parent advocates later, and finally Chef John Turenne and his staff have been hired! Parents, via the PTA, relentlessly advocated for improvements and did get some. But those directly involved knew that comprehensive change would not be possible without the help of a respected, outside professional who had been through the transition himself.

John Turenne presented about Overcoming Obstacles to Better School Food at a 2011 Food Day event organized by the Fairfield Green Food Guide at Greenwich Audubon and Pequot Library.

A copy of the letter our school system sent to parents announcing the news is included in this post. The lesson I suppose is that if you really want something, never give up. For those of you out there fighting the good fight, I hope this inspires you.

Expect small changes over time to our school food rather than a radical transformation. You’ll understand why once you get to know Chef John Turenne, President and Founder of Sustainable Food Systems, by reading the award-winning profile by Elizabeth Keyser that follows. First published on this website, “From Dollars and Cents to Common Sense” is now also published on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution website.

From Dollars and Cents to Common Sense

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, is the leader in the movement to bring sustainable food to large institutions like universities, hospitals, and school districts. Recently, he led the behind-the-scenes team that made Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” work in the Huntington, West Virginia school system.

Turenne’s solid background in the conventional food industry makes him eminently suited for his innovative role in the sustainable food movement. During his career with Aramark, the mammoth food services corporation, Turenne managed dining programs at Wesleyan, Choate Rosemary Hall school, and Yale.

“My performance was based on dollars and cents rather than common sense,” he says, “How well I performed for my company was based on how much we could reduce costs.”  That meant reducing the cost of labor and food, while increasing efficiency and sales.  With fewer cooks to prepare food, the answer was to increase the use of processed food. Convenience over quality.

One day in the fall of 2001, as he prepared to feed 6,000 students at a Yale Bowl football game, he got a telephone call. Yale’s president wanted him to come to his office to meet a parent.

The parent was Alice Waters.  Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated restaurant in Berkeley, California, known for sourcing from local farms, had become a missionary in the sustainable food movement. Her interest in Yale’s food was personal. Her daughter Fannie had just entered Yale.

Waters asked for 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 the book, “This is required reading.”

Sustainable food? Turenne didn’t know what it was. Waters took him under her wing.  “She made me understand the impact food has. That’s when I realized food has a face and a story, and that story could be wonderful or not so wonderful.”   He learned about the damage big  corporate food causes to animals, people and the earth.

Food was central – what other thing on the planet was integral to environment, community, animals and people, and health and nutrition.

Turenne’s immediate task was making Waters’ vision workable at Yale. Yale’s president wanted Turenne “to make the client happy.” Turenne was mindful that Chez Panisse fed 100 people a night using a small army of chefs.  Turenne was feeding 6,000 people a night with two chefs.

He designed and implemented a nationally recognized program that was expanded to Yale’s 12 dining halls, and continues to this day. Turenne adapted the processes he learned over his career.  He limited the choice of food, keeping labor costs down, minimizing overproduction and waste. “Imagine the amount of waste having so many stations. That’s not cost-effective.”  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.”

Designing the program at Yale changed his life. “I decided I’m not going back,” he said.  He told Aramack the industry had to change.  They weren’t ready for change, 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 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, he not only had to redesign the lunch program, he had to assuage the Jamie Oliver-induced bruised egos of cafeteria and school district staff. “They’d look at us with dagger eyes. Many school food service directors are afraid.” But Turenne understands where they are coming from. He’s been there. “I could leverage the fact I’d come from a conventional food industry. Not many people can say that. It’s 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’ll facilitate. You guys drive the boat.   Then we’ll look at the ingredients and say, here’s an alternative. “  Turenne 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.”

Whether at home or in an institution, change happens in increments.  Baby steps lead to leaps and bounds. Turenne mentions a friend whose first step was  “I’m going to buy better milk.”  Today he’s buying from CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).

What makes Turenne proudest?  “What fills my hear 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 did at Yale.”  And when Turenne’s Sustainable Food Systems team leaves a client site, the new sustainable food program will be sustainable only through the work of these stakeholders.

In West Virginia, it is. The cooks and staff are behind the program “because ultimately it’s good for the kids.” They said, “We can’t imagine going back to doing what we were doing.”


2 thoughts on “Sustainable Food Systems Comes to Fairfield”

  1. I am very impressed with his ambitions and would love to attend one of his training sessions and report on it. I would have to say that his web site does not have a lot of depth and I want to hear more. Thanks.

    • James, we’ll report regularly as we hear from John and his team. I really wish the school system had held a press conference. I mean after all this is good news for a change.

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