Can Institutional Food Be Tasty and Healthy?

Meal preparation assembly line

City Fresh Foods staffers assemble Caribbean meals for clients.

Given the low rates that public institutions–such as schools, elder care facilities, and child care centers–are able to pay, is it possible to produce institutional meals that taste good and are good for you? City Fresh Foods founder Glynn Lloyd boldly states that “Bottom line – it doesn’t have to be crap.”

The market for government-subsidized prepared meals tends to be dominated by the big companies like Sodexo and Aramark that produce most of the institutional food served at universities, hospitals, military bases, and the like.  While the big guys are changing some of their practices to use local suppliers and provide healthier foods, these corporations are not going to make fundamental changes to our current food system.

City Fresh logo

City Fresh logo

The Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston recently sponsored a tour of the City Fresh building, which is tucked away in an industrial corner of Roxbury in the former Dancing Deer Bakery factory.  The company prepares 8,000 meals a day, primarily for the “public market”–-publicly-subsidized meals at schools, child care centers, elder care facilities, and other institutions. It’s a highly capitalized, labor-intensive, low-margin business– a far cry from the tiny inner-city catering business that Glynn Lloyd started in 1994.  Today, City Fresh employs 75 people, and 95 percent of them are from the neighborhood.

Glynn and Sheldon Lloyd

City Fresh founder, Glynn Lloyd (l) and his brother, Sheldon Lloyd (r)

“We have to provide a good service,” Glynn Lloyd says, “because our staffers have kids in schools who get our meals. Even my grandmother was getting City Fresh meals.”

While Lloyd confesses that their meals are still far from where they want them to be, City Fresh is trying to make the food as healthy as possible. Diabetes and obesity are rampant in communities of color. “Our kids are dying,” Glynn Lloyd says.  “We need to push the envelope.”

While many of the challenges are financial—how do you deliver a prepared, hot meal for well under $2.00 a person?—there are also more practical issues, like chicken bones, to chew over.  City Fresh tried to serve children fresh chicken, instead of the high-fat, processed chicken nuggets served at most schools, but the children only get 15 minutes to eat.  “Our kids can’t cut the chicken,” the school administrators said, so City Fresh had to resort to the dreaded chicken nuggets.  The City Fresh version is made from whole breast chicken meat, but they are still battered and flash fried.

Machine for bagging bread

City Fresh staffer operates a bread-bagging machine.

City Fresh buys from as many local vendors as possible, which helps keep money circulating in the community.  They get their bread from a local bakery and grass-fed beef from a farmer within 100 miles of their facility every two weeks.  They also buy local produce from their sister company, City Growers, which is trying to turn vacant urban land into sustainable farms.

While I was impressed by City Fresh’s efforts to create tasty, healthy meals on the shoestring budget that our society has allocated for publicly supported institutional meals, what I took away from the tour was that this is a social problem that no one company can solve.  Maybe, just maybe, if we tried subsidizing local food systems instead of industrial agriculture, we could all eat better food.

Boston Local Food Festival Brings Bostonians Together to Meet and Eat

The Boston Local Food Festival on Saturday, October 2 was a mashup of people and food on Boston’s waterfront by the Children’s Museum. The event—a first for Boston—brought farmers, fisherfolk, restaurateurs, artisanal food producers, and eaters from the Boston area together to share their passion for local food.

Volunteer duty

Volunteer Rachel "HealthyChicks" Chemerynski helps The Food Project unload their truck.

I shivered in the pre-dawn chill as I walked across the deserted Congress Street bridge at 6 am Saturday morning to begin my volunteer stint, but by the time I left that afternoon, it was a perfect sunny fall day and the festival was so packed, I could barely make my way out.

Beautiful turnovers and brioches from Canto 6 Bakery & Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

From free samples of milk, chocolate, hummus, and the smoked fish patés from Nantucket Wild Gourmet & Smokehouse to the dishes from local restaurants and vendors, all priced at under $5, everywhere I looked and smelled, there was food, glorious food. In between the eating opportunities were learning opportunities galore: Educational exhibits, food demos, and a seafood “throwdown” between chefs Didi Emmons and Jason Bond.

In addition to generating excitement and support for local food, one of the goals of the festival was to ”facilitate collaborations between local food farms, businesses, and public and non-profit organizations” and the festival organizers, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston, certainly succeeded.

Jeff Barry, founder of Boston Organics, an organic produce delivery service, and a sponsor and supporter of the Local Food Festival, told me, “Putting this event together has created so many good connections. Boston Organics provided produce from farms, breads from Nashoba Bakery, and food for sandwiches for the volunteers, but we couldn’t figure out how to get all the stuff here [when they needed it].  We knew that Katsiroubas Bros. [a wholesale fruit and produce company] was bringing a truck, so even though I didn’t know them, I called them yesterday to ask for help and they delivered it for us.”

Boston Local Food Festival

Boston Organics Founder Jeff Barry

Barry concluded: “The food system and infrastructure are dominated by the larger entities.  This event came together through using informal networks, and that’s how the local food system will come together.”

Is Local Food in a Pickle?

The Pickle Man

Travis Grilllo displays his pickles.

Interest in local foods is starting to spread faster than mint in a garden.  Despite the growing demand, the folks who make and sell local foods are often in a pickle: how can they produce and deliver fresh local foods AND pay themselves and their staff a living wage while keeping their prices affordable?

As I tasted a delicious local pickle and other wonderful products at the Sustainable Business Network’s Buy Local Workshop and Mini Trade Show for Restaurants and Chefs at the Seaport World Trade Center yesterday, I learned more about some of the challenges that the people who produce, cook and sell local foods are facing.

Grillo’s Pickles are the perfect marriage of sour and salty.  Travis Grillo started his company two years ago and produces his pickles at Katsiroubas Bros. in Newmarket Square. While he runs a delightful pickle cart on Boston Common and still delivers pickles to his small accounts personally, he also sells to Whole Foods.  While others would love to have this level of success, Grillo told me that he has unutilized production capacity. “People love the product,” he said, “but I need to expand my distribution.”

The Cheese Man

El Lawton of Foxboro Cheese Co with his Fromage Blanc

Despite the growing crowds at farmers markets, selling at the markets is not always profitable. Ed Lawton of the Foxbory Cheese Co. just started selling his fromage blanc and asiago at 15 local farmers markets this year. His fromage blanc is mild and pleasingly tangy.   Foxboro Cheese is part of Lawtons Family Farms, a dairy that sells raw milk and grass fed beef and veal as well as the cheese. So far, Lawton says, his experiences at the markets have been mixed.  “Some of the markets attract a lot of tourists who aren’t going to buy cheeses or meat they have to cook,” he said.  Learning which markets work for your business takes time and money that some farmers just don’t have.

The CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator

Devon Whitney-Deal of CISA displays their guide to local food

Fortunately, there’s also a loose network of non-profits, government agencies, and businesses helping local food businesses market their foods.  Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), based in western Massachusetts, launched their “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” campaign in 1999.  “It’s the longest running ‘buy local’ program in the country,” CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator Devon Whitney-Deal told me.   In a recent CISA survey, 69% of participating farms reported that their produce sales had increased.

In eastern Massachusetts, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston (SBN) , the sponsor of yesterday’s event, has a Local Food Committee that’s doing a great job promoting local foods by organizing events and programs that connect local eaters, restaurants, producers and distributors.  On Saturday, October 2, 2010, 11am-5pm, they’re producing the first Boston Local Food Festival at the Boston Waterfront on Fort Port Channel. If the event attracts the hoped-for crowds, the increased support for local foods could help producers sell pickles rather than be in one.