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From Farm to Fork

August 14, 2012
Matthew Rothe

I never imagined that a bowl of salad could throw out so many questions on the table until I met with Matt Rothe, Sustainable Food Program Manager at the Stanford Dining Services. Where are these tomatoes coming from? How were they grown? Is the plastic bowl biodegradable? Are the farmers who had raised the kale fairly rewarded?

Food is a common language that people around the world share and we need to learn how to communicate through food issues to be better global citizens. Office of International Affairs sat down with Matthew to learn the Stanford Dining Service’s efforts to educate students and collaborate with Stanford partners to advance global sustainability.

Q. You are a farmer, innovator, d-schooler, and “food eater.” Tell me about yourself and how you ended up working for Stanford Dining.

MR: I grew up on a large conventional corn farm in Colorado, where I had absolutely no intention of returning when I left for college. However, as graduation loomed, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do and it occurred to me that I wanted to farm with my dad. So I called him up and proposed the idea and he said ‘no”, because, as he explained, our farm was not going to be economically sustainable for another generation; not at least without access to large pools of capital. Nevertheless, I wanted to stay in agriculture, so I found a job at Niman Ranch, where I worked as the Director of Operations for six years. This was an important learning opportunity for me, as I began to see the fundamental challenges of the food system, as well as opportunities to address them in an economically viable way.

I ultimately left Niman Ranch to pursue an MBA at the Graduate School of Business here at Stanford to pick up some skills I felt I needed, and then took a position with Attune Foods, which at the time was leading the way in the functional food space. In that time my father passed away and, having to formally relinquish our farm to the grips of private equity, I decided that I wanted to refocus my energy on changing the food system. After a lot of deliberation, I decided that leading the Sustainable Food Program for Stanford Dining could be an incredible opportunity to leverage its purchasing power and brand to create systemic change within the system, which I think has turned out to be true.

What I did not recognize at the time, however, was the more important impact we could make in educating our students,--the future leaders of our global institutions--about the food system. We have a lot of work yet to do in this regard, but I’m thrilled by the opportunity to continue working on it in the next stage of my career, which will be as a fellow at the beginning this fall.

"The Sustainable Food Program is a collaborative effort among Stanford Dining, its vendors and suppliers, students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders both on and off campus."

Q. What is the mission of Stanford Dining’s Sustainable Food Program and whom have you worked with?

MR: Our mission is two-fold. First, we aim to educate students about their role, responsibility, and impact as participants in the global food system. Second, we work proactively to reduce the social and ecological impact of our business through sustainable purchasing programs and by operating our dining halls and other facilities as efficiently as possible.

By nature, the Sustainable Food Program is a collaborative effort among Stanford Dining, its vendors and suppliers, students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders both on and off campus. In the last three years, I’ve had meaningful collaborations with students and faculty in virtually every school at Stanford, which has led to everything from research papers on food behaviors to workshops on how to make tofu. I’ve also worked strategically with many of our business partners and interested non-profit organizations to push for greater transparency and justice in the food supply chain.

Q. Which of the programs especially have a global impact?

MR: There are two that immediately come to my mind. The first is our long-standing partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. The seafood industry is global almost by definition, at least in terms of both geography and governance, and because of opacity in the supply chain and weak law enforcement structures. There are a host of challenges in maintaining sustainable fisheries around the world. Our collaboration with the Seafood Watch program, supply chain partners like Taku River Reds, and others working on this issue is having beneficial ripple effects that reach all parts of the globe. And to the extent that we provide a lot of education to the 4,000 students eating in our dining halls about the sustainability of seafood, our hope is that we’re having a long-term positive impact on the world’s fisheries by graduating informed students.

The second program that has the potential to achieve global impact is our Fair Food Project, which we initiated to help us better understand the socioeconomic impact of our food purchases. The reality is that purchasing locally produced food is an imperfect measure for ensuring sustainable business practices. So, we’ve decided to pursue what we think of as an “opportunity-based” approach to identify particular issues that are both pervasive in the food system and egregious in nature. What we identified in this process is that U.S. farm workers are legally excluded from the basic labor protections that the rest of us enjoy and, as result, they are exploited in some really awful ways. As an example, the largest case of slavery ever prosecuted in the U.S. happened just two years ago, in 2010.

The twin objectives of our Fair Food Project are to thus identify and preferentially purchase food that has been produced fairly and justly and to raise awareness of these issues to help advance greater legal protections for the people who care for and harvest our food. To the extent that we can make progress on this issue domestically, our hope is that it will set a precedent, legally or otherwise, for the global trade of food as well.

Q. One of my favorite phrases when it comes to sustainability is “think globally, act locally.” Do you believe we can contribute to global sustainability by making small changes in our everyday lives?

MR: I believe this unequivocally. After all, we eat three times every day and the reality is that what we choose to eat can have a much bigger impact on our ecological systems than even the cars we choose to drive. Consider this: a) 1 billion people on this planet are obese; b) the food system wastes approximately 40% of the calories that is produces, while; c) 1 billion people are hungry. I can’t think of a greater truism than the food that we choose to eat or throw away every day has consequences for the greater system of which we are a part.

Q. Do you know where your eggs are coming from? Are you self-sustainable?

MR: I actually have eight laying hens, so yes, I know exactly where my eggs are coming from! My wife and I have ventured to grow as much of our own food as possible and, while we’re not self sufficient yet, we’re making a good try of it on our plot at the Stanford Community Farm.

Sustainable Stanford

Stanford builds sustainability practices and innovation into every aspect of campus life, from operations and building to student life, teaching and research to create a healthier environment now and richer probabilities for generations to come. Read Cardinal Green Newsletter and learn more about Sustainable Stanford.

Sustainable Food Program

The Sustainable Food Program is a collaborative effort led and managed by Stanford Dining that includes strategic partnerships with vendors and suppliers, students, staff, faculty and other campus stakeholders. Through these partnerships, the Sustainable Food Program seeks to create positive impact across three areas of focus: education, outreach, and awareness; collaboration and partnership; and operational and culinary excellence. 

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