How John Turenne Changed The Way We Eat

Leading the Way

A decade ago, John Turenne was executive chef at Yale University, working for the massive food service corporation Aramark. Sustainability was not in his vocabulary. But then he met the pioneer of conscious eating, chef Alice Waters, whose daughter, Fanny, was about to study at Yale. As Turenne says, "She told me that Fanny cannot eat the food served here." She also gave him a copy of Fast Food Nation, and he was hooked.

After a few years, he left Aramark to form Sustainable Food Systems in Wallingford, which has been transforming the food served in schools, hospitals and businesses throughout the United States. One of his most prestigious projects was leading the behind-the-scenes team for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in the Huntington, W.Va., school system. And that meant working with cafeteria and school district staff, many of whom were resisting change. His message is concise: We all need to find a way to produce and consume food that ultimately promotes the well-being of ourselves and our planet.

His advice for any school system wanting to make changes in the food it serves: "Begin with baby steps, followed by continuous growth." He likens sustainability to a wheel with five spokes. And although food is important, it is only one spoke on the wheel. The other spokes you need to foster growth and change:

Facilities and infrastructure: Examine the type of kitchen, the appliances used, how food is prepared, etc., and make changes when needed.

Community: Involve all the stakeholders responsible for the food -- staff, administration, students, parents, teachers, outside experts -- or as Turenne likes to say, "It takes a village to make change."

Communications: In many cases, that means retraining staff to cook, and that requires education and communication. When it works well, food becomes part of the curriculum.

Fiscal responsibility: Schools have to meet the nutritional guidelines set by the USDA while focusing on the bottom line. In most cases, adding labor is not an option but grants and innovative ways of buying and approaching food distribution are.

Turenne's enthusiasm is contagious. "With the right balance of a holistic program, anything is possible," he says. "Say, `Yes we can do this thing' as opposed to, `No, we can't.' Resolve to refuse to hear that word `can't' and you can do great things."