The Ethicurean lives! An update, in which I come out of my corporate closet
Tap, tap. Is this thing on? Does it still work?
Wait, let me clear away the cobwebs from the microphone. Is that better? Can you hear me now? All five of you? (Hi mom! Hi Jack!)
What readers remain may have wondered when someone was going to put this blog out of its misery. I certainly have. Unfortunately, as the only person who cofounded it who is still actively working on it — if you can count editing a monthly post as “active” — that decision fell to me, and I just couldn’t bear to pull the plug yet. Not only were Marc, Jennifer, and Amanda still watering the cactus with the occasional new post, but there’s still so much wrong with our food system, and so many great people out there working on fixing it who we should be covering.
What happened to the Ethicureans? Well, in a word, life. The original team drifted off to write novels and have babies or serve demanding full-time non-food masters. Since we launched in May 2006, I personally have quit one full-time job, started and quit several more freelance ones, and had a daughter, now-18-month-old Jinx. I also left Grist — where I was working with Tom Philpott, the most dogged and delightful food-politics reporter the food movement could be lucky enough to have — and journalism altogether to go work for a large food-services corporation.
A walk on the dark side
But not just any food-services corporation, mind you. I’d been aware of Bon Appétit Management Company for some time. (No, it is not related to the magazine. Sigh.) I even wrote about it here in April 2009, when it backed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I thought it was cool that CEO Fedele Bauccio actually flew to Immokalee to meet with the CIW. I wrote back then that Bauccio “is a charming guy not averse to good publicity, and a businessman first. He has to be — BAMCo is owned by the publicly traded, UK-based Compass Group — but BAMCo's track record indicates a serious commitment to persuading, and enabling, people to chew the right thing.”
So when Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appétit’s Vice President of Strategy, called me up in December of last year and said she and Fedele wanted to meet with me to discuss a new communications position they were creating, I went. They told me they were looking for a journalist who cared about the same things as they did, and who could get Bon Appétit’s story across more effectively in different ways. They thought I might be that person. I listened. We talked some more. I asked Maisie where the company wanted to go, food-wise, and what kept her up at night worrying. Her answers pleased and reassured me.
Bon Appétit Management Company is the rare multi-million-dollar company that doesn’t greenwash — if anything, the company under-states its achievements. It doesn’t even like to use the word “sustainable” about itself, only as a goal that it’s seeking. Here are the three things that most impressed me, although there are many more: 1) It cooks all its food from scratch. 2) It launched its Farm to Fork program back in 1999, more than half a decade before locavoreanism became the new black. The chefs of the company’s 400 cafés in 31 states are required to buy at least 20 percent of their food from small, owner-operated farms within 150 miles of their kitchens, and it thus spends tens of millions of dollars annually on such farms.
Third, Bon Appétit cares about farmworkers. As I've written here before, it really bugs me that so few "foodies" even have labor on their radar. Fedele and Maisie haven’t quite figured out yet how to translate their awareness of how the food system has failed farmworkers into companywide policies, but they’re actively working on it.
Playing field of dreams
So on February 1, I started my new full-time job at Bon Appétit as its new Director of Communications. I work alongside the very talented Haven Bourque, the company’s longtime public-relations consultant, on the usual PR stuff — press releases about company news, journalist pitching and hand-holding. I also maintain the company social media presence (Facebook, @bamco, and the company blog) and edit its quarterly internal magazine, Bravo. And much to my delight, I get to help shape the company’s strategy on the issues that it cares about.
My very first day at work started with a 9 a.m. meeting with representatives from United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network, Consumer Federation of America, and Oxfam America about a nascent project they were working on jointly for which they wanted Bon Appétit’s input, and ultimately, support. I was expecting to take notes and not say much. But to my surprise, after they laid out their idea, Maisie tossed me the ball: “What do you think?”
As I told her afterward, all of a sudden I realized that as a freelance writer, I’d been up in the nosebleed seats, watching the action way down on the field. Now I was sitting on the end zone. “Hmm,” she said with her Spock-like smile. “I think you’re actually in the game.”
Seven months later, I’m a little bruised and battered by all the action, but I don’t doubt for a minute I made the right decision. We’ve gotten some great press. We’ve got some cool announcements in the pipeline I can’t talk about yet. And I’m in charge of planning a TEDx conference loosely focused on farmworkers, TEDxFruitvale, to take place on October 14 in Oakland, that the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation is hosting. I hope you all will watch the live webcast, or consider hosting a viewing party. We’ve got some awesome speakers lined up, including Gerardo Reyes-Chavez from CIW, Nikki Henderson from People’s Grocery, Tomatoland author Barry Estabrook, Wayne Pacelle from the Humane Society of the United States, and several current and/or former farmworkers.
OK, if you’ve read this far, you may be wondering why on earth I am telling the Ethicurean readership (or what remains of it) all this self-indulgent minutiae. I’ll be honest. It’s because I haven’t been sure that I could continue to post here, as myself — with my own unvarnished opinions, good and bad—and yet also do this job, which frankly eats up all the spare time I used to have. (The baby helps.)
Now, I think I can. In seven months, Maisie and Fedele have never asked me to censor myself, or to say or do anything with which I was remotely uncomfortable. I just wanted to be up front with you, dear readers, about where I am coming from. I may write occasionally about Bon Appétit Management Company, but I will always disclose my connection and link back to this post for context. And I hope that you will feel free to call bullshit on me as you all always have.
I also hope to be seeing you all a bit more often around here, now that I have come out of the closet.
Next up: A Labor Day weekend post!
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