Institute News

"Eat Ethically, Eat Locally"

September 28, 2012

Local FoodIt is Day One of our annual Intensive Bioethics Conference (June 4, 2012). We have welcomed over 140 participants to the Georgetown University campus, with more than 50 from outside the U.S., and another dozen or so faculty and staff. We will spend the next five days learning about bioethics—a field that asks us to think hard about our ethical obligations in health care and the environment.

Driving to work a few months ago, it occurred to me, as conference coordinator, that it was—quite literally—time to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. We needed to make the commitment to arrange catering for our participants in a manner true to what this conference was about, ethics. That would include eating ethically—being attentive to where food came from, how it was grown, how it was delivered into the hands of those who prepared and served this food, even down to the level of how those growers, preparers and servers were treated by management.

We found Bon Appetit, a caterer that is committed to just that, and Sebastian Mata Alvarez, the manager from Bon Appetit who had organized a major event for Georgetown on Food Sustainability some months previous, hosted by Prince Charles on his visit to the U.S., and attended by major food reporters, restaurant critics, VIPs from many backgrounds, and local restauranteurs.

Sebastian presented a proposal that I loved—yogurts, eggs and milks from local dairies, fruits and vegetables from farms in the area, meats and fish both humanely and sustainably raised, over 90 percent of all served food from within 100 miles (!), and the provenance clearly stated, and all fresh not frozen.

And then my fear set in. What if they were unable to really work within Georgetown's strict rules? what if there was not enough food or variety to please this large, multiethnic group? (I remember the year where one participant had to have meals with "no garlic", and another who wanted a plate with shredded carrots only for lunch each day.) What if it's too expensive? My mantra became, "It's hard to do the right thing. You are doing the right thing. Trust the company, trust their reputation, trust your colleague, Sebastian."

And it worked. To my surprise, the expenses were in line with what we'd always paid for catering. Pitchers of water and fresh-squeezed lemonade or cucumber water were always available. There was a gorgeous local trout for lunch one day; even the coffee was ground locally. And Sebastian even provided stainless steel water bottles with the inscription "Eat ethically, Eat locally" to help us spread the message of using refillable water bottles. At our final lunch together, Sebastian arranged an ice cream bar with toppings and flavors that people swooned over. Watching a participant from Africa licking his spoon and smiling and smiling—that might have made it all worthwhile right there!

Every day I heard compliments from people who attended; every person who spoke to me was grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ethical exercise to bring food to the table that had meaning. There is a physician from Puerto Rico who has attended several years in a row and he made a special point of drawing me aside, "Linda, your cooking is always so good," a standing joke between us, "but this year it is the best ever." Now I was the one smiling.

By Linda Powell, IBC Course Director and KIE Senior Administrator & Business Manager