How Will Sustainability Shape the Next Decade in Dietetics?

What if the country’s culinary, nutrition science, restaurant and foodservice leaders came together to address some of the most pressing issues facing the future of food? What if a cross-collaborative brain trust of nutrition experts, chefs, social entrepreneurs and environmental scientists enabled foodservice to develop fresh insights, shape new strategies, and drive new models of innovation to thrive in today’s global food system?

These are the questions behind a new collaboration between the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health — Menus of Change seeks to address the most critical challenges that are converging at the intersection of public health, environmental health and the business of food.

Often considered in separate silos, the urgency to address these three issues as a unified whole is gaining momentum in the business community. “We may very well be witnessing something of a ‘perfect storm’ that will demand not merely small changes around the edges, but entire paradigm shifts over time,” reads the opening lines of their newly released 2014 Annual Report.

The report identifies the most essential priorities foodservice faces in these key areas, and lays out a Principles for Healthy, Sustainable Menus 24-point checklist. The collaboration's long-term vision is to create a roadmap and a set of tools to help businesses navigate these issues. In other words, to flesh out precisely how the adage “People. Planet. Profit.” might look when served on a plate. 

A Taste of What’s to Come

It can be easy to forget, while we are working away in our own spheres of nutrition and health, that food is on the front lines of climate change. Yet for many people across the country and the globe, their most direct experience with climate change will actually come through their fork, including things such as food prices, access and availability. Here are some of the forces Menus of Change highlighted that are rapidly influencing our profession and our world.

Coming To a Menu Near You: More plant foods in starring roles. Smaller portions of meat. High quality protein sourcing. Think produce first.
Agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to climate change and carbon emissions. And according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, global livestock production plays a significant role in total global carbon emissions, collectively contributing more greenhouse gasses than the transportation sector. Production of plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, in contrast, have a significantly smaller environmental impact and lower carbon emissions. While meat and dairy products can still be enjoyed, the report emphasizes moving these products into more of a supporting role, supporting high-quality protein sourcing (including support for producers who don’t administer antibiotics to healthy animals and those who serve sustainable seafood), and serving smaller portions in ways consumers embrace. It also encourages strategies that lead with lots of produce. Such strategies not only help to meet nutrition recommendations, but from a business perspective can reduce operating costs and protect against global supply chains' growing volatility.

What this means for RDs: As food and nutrition experts, we know flavor is where things have to start: How can we inspire with flavor and taste, and tie compelling, relevant nutrition messages to these concepts? How can we help inform imagination by showing our clients and the public what’s possible on their plate? How can we participate in the emerging conversations around protein: including protein sourcing and the science encompassing recommended intake?

The New Consumer: “Share Not Just My Palate, but my Values”
The technology boom has transformed not only our online lives, but consumer expectations and engagement as well. According to Rob Bernard, Microsoft's Chief Environmental Scientist, the data democratization brought by the internet and mobile phones has shifted the balance of power between the consumer and business in dramatic ways. Consumer preferences are changing, and social responsibility is growing in importance. Millennials, who will soon overtake baby boomers as the leading demographic, are an especially dynamic undercurrent. Comfortable with a variety of food philosophies and tied into instant access to data they readily share online, they are both activists and advocates, proactive when it comes to engagement with brands they do business with. According to Shelley Balanko, Senior VP of the Hartman Group, a growing number of consumers today are driving the conversation away from just economic “value” to broader, overarching “values” such as planetary health, animal welfare and social concerns. In other words, they believe that values and ethics, as well as science, are important when making decisions. These consumers crave trust and transparency in the companies they do business with — they want to see certifications and hear stories.

What this means for RDs: Beyond the Nutrition Facts Panel, there is a growing need for RDs to be able to bring the more complete story of food to life. And to become familiar with a variety of viewpoints on the social issues that relate to food in order to have confidence and competence when discussing them. In addition, distinguishing between the weight of scientific evidence versus personal opinion to maintain professional credibility is a must.

Opportunities for Dietitians

The food system as we’ve known it for the past 60 years is now at a major crossroads, and a new dynamic global conversation is happening right now. Those who can innovate and chart a bold new path forward that makes business sense and that consumers willingly embrace will not only be at the forefront of this new economy, they will thrive. Dietitians need to be a part of this transformation — both because it is in our purview as food and nutrition experts, and because it offers immense opportunities for us. We bring a distinct set of essential insights, expertise and skills that are needed to inform, inspire and, ultimately, to reshape America’s appetite.

Disclosure: I was given a media pass to attend the Menus of Change conference, which was June 9-11, 2014 in Cambridge, MA.

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Kate Geagan
Kate Geagan is author of Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low Carbon Footprint Diet. She is a international speaker, consultant and media communications expert on food sustainability issues. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+.