Food Sustainability and Changing Tastes
SEAS alumnus advises clients on changes in the food industry
By Lori Atherton
More than 100,000 restaurants have closed permanently or for the long term as a result of COVID-19, according to a September survey by the National Restaurant Association. Despite that grim statistic, SEAS graduate Arlin Wasserman is optimistic that the industry will recover from the pandemic—just as it did with prior challenges, including the economic downturns of 2001 and 2007.
Wasserman (MS ’90, MPH ’91) makes it his business to study and understand changes in the food industry, given his role as the founder and partner of Changing Tastes, “a strategy, culinary, and sustainability consultancy creating successful ventures and meaningful change in the food sector.”
Changing Tastes, which began in 2003, advises and supports restaurant and hospitality companies, retail food brands, philanthropies, and trade and environmental organizations. Clients include big names such as the World Bank, Universal Studios Theme Park, Comcast, Seafood Watch, the National Restaurant Association, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, among others.
Projects that Wasserman has developed include the Thank You Africa program, which was part of this year’s United Nations World Food Day on October 16. Thank You Africa seeks to create gratitude and respect in the United States for Africa and its food contributions—including cola, chilis, coffee, and rice—which are now considered staples in the American pantry.
He also created the Plant Forward culinary strategy nearly a decade ago, which is now used on college campuses across the country as a means of reducing the consumption of red meat and greenhouse gas emissions while increasing the consumption of plant-based foods. Wasserman and Changing Tastes also are taking on sustainability in college food service overall, developing a new performance management and training program for the National Association of College and University Foodservice Operators. Michigan Dining Director Steve Magnan is chairing the effort at U-M.
Now, it is the changing landscape of the restaurant industry—and the food industry as a whole—that is top of mind for Wasserman and his team.
“This is a time of great thoughtfulness for us,” he says, “because the way we change tastes or the way Americans in great numbers decide to eat something different is now going to be based on a new model because of the pandemic. Since we aren’t eating out as much, we won’t have as many opportunities to be exposed to new foods. Dining out is the safest way to try something new, because it’s eating only on one occasion. There isn’t the risk of having portions left over and eating something again even though you didn’t like it.”
COVID-19, Wasserman notes, has created an opportunity to “reset” how we think about food and sustainability, and to implement much-needed changes that can have a lasting impact.
They include a return to scratch cooking that relies more on a plant-based diet; increasing the use of ingredients produced domestically and cultivating our domestic capacity to produce more of the foods we eat, protecting us from future public health risks, climate change, drought, social disruptions, and trade conflicts; and changing supplier practices to improve the livelihoods of the essential workers who harvest our food.
“We think the response to COVID may provide some opportunity to reframe how cities, especially secondary cities, feed themselves,” Wasserman says.