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Harvard and Culinary Institute: younger chefs are thinking about sustainability

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Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette/AP

(Read caption) Freshly picked eggplants sit in a container at the University of Illinois Sustainable Student Farm in Urbana, Ill. in July 2012.

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The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the world. Aspiring chefs come from all over to pursue their vision of food, of cuisine. The CIA and the Harvard School of Public Health have partnered to bring the food service industry, nutrition sector, public health and environmental sector together in their Menus of Change initiative. Food Tank (FT) had the opportunity to speak with Amy Myrdal Miller (AM), Director of Programs and Culinary Nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America, about the initiative. 

FT: What is Menus of Change?

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AM: Our Menus of Change initiative grew out of our long-term partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health. We'd been working with them since the early 2000s on an initiative we call Worlds of Healthy Flavors, which was designed to provide leaders from the food service industry with science based information on what is healthy eating and then to provide them with culinary insights on plant based cuisines from around the world. We need better innovation and inspiration from world cuisines to bring more flavor to people, and we know consumers are looking for this. We know plant based dietary patterns are supported by consumer values and we know there is a sustainability tie in.

The industry is starting to not only ask what's the most healthful option, but if this is also a sustainable option. They were feeling pressure from the recession, and starting to think about menu design for long-term business success.

So we said, we're the culinary experts, Harvard are the nutrition science experts. What we need to do is tie in the environmental science community and bring in business leaders to develop a new initiative and this is how Menus of Change was formed. 

We published our first Menus of Change annual report and this is written for chefs in a very consumer friendly tone. Here's what the science says. Here's directional guidance. And here's how you can make better decisions when it comes to the health of your consumer, the health of the planet and the health of your business. We included a dashboard rated on a five-point scale to show how the industry is doing in different areas and then each subsequent year we'll publish a new one to show if there's been stagnation in an area, improvement or a drop-off in success. 

FT: How important is it for young chefs to think about food sustainability?

AM: We're seeing a greater interest among students in thinking about sustainability issues, about the health of the planet. They want to have connections with local growers and farmers. Our Napa Valley campus hosts the farm to table program. This is where we see our students who have a strong passion for local sustainable food go and get a farm experience with both plants and animals and look at what it takes to get something from the CIA student farm to the back door of the restaurant they're operating. 

This is about young leaders saying, this is what I can do to have impact. When we get to 2050 and there are more than 9 billion people on this planet, this is how I'm going to be a leader. This is how I'm going to think about sourcing, my menu and my staff. 

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FT: What can young chefs do to make a difference?

AM: There's not one single approach that is the answer or one single person who holds all the answers. To have success, it takes many voices. We need culinary professionals working with nutrition professionals, the supply chain, the agriculture community and the environmental community. You have to engage a lot of people in the conversation to find the right directional guidance to move forward.