Seafood is one of the most unsustainable foods on the planet, but you’d never know that walking into a Northwestern dining hall. From grilled fish tacos and cod fillets to “tangy and spicy shrimp pizzetta,” there’s no shortage of seafood options at Allison. But how does Allison’s shrimp or Sargent’s salmon get from sea to table? Does it cross the Great Barrier Reef to swim right into our own Lakefill?
The journey begins in the great blue ocean. Well, sometimes – but not always. It varies by fish, so there is no single lake or ocean where all of Plex’s pollock is sourced. Northwestern says it works to ensure the seafood on our plates is environmentally sustainable, but it’s not always easy.
“Fish is not ever going to be sustainable. We ruined that when people started farming fish and overfishing,” says Amos Pomp, a Weinberg sophomore and Real Food analyst intern at Sodexo.
This summer, the Marine Stewardship Council – an organization that sets standards for sustainable fishing – might update their standards to remove the option of sustainable fish. It’s impossible for environmentally-sound seafood to be caught from large bodies of water because they’re overfished, according to Pomp. “Fish that could count as ecologically sound would literally be from a sustainable pond in your backyard, and that can’t feed all of Northwestern,” he says.
If our dining hall flounder isn’t coming from someone’s pond, where does the chain begin? Northwestern’s biggest seafood vendor is Slade Gorton, an offshoot of the large food delivery company Gordon Food Services. Slade Gorton has worked with Sodexo, Northwestern’s current food provider, since around 2010, making the company the University’s partner in crime for all things fish – but that’s not the end of the trail.
Slade Gorton, to a degree, is a middleman. The company imports, distributes and manufactures all of the seafood for NU dining halls. They aren’t actually rowing out into the ocean to catch any cod, but this doesn’t stop the company from tracking where the filet comes from. Slade Gorton receives its fish from local vendors across the world – their pollock swims in the Bering and Barents Seas, while the shrimp comes from the Mexican Sea of Cortez.
This leads back to one point: you won’t know for sure where your fish comes from unless you do the research. Our dinner could have been partying outside of Miami or shivering on the coast of Juneau and you’d never be able to tell the difference. But location isn’t all that matters, especially if you care about protecting the environment. The real issue involving seafood is sustainability – something Northwestern has set its sights on in the past decade.
Seven years ago, Sodexo established a Sustainable Seafood Policy (SSP), which aims to prohibit the use of endangered fish.
Northwestern’s District Executive Chef Chris Studtmann often keeps his eyes glued to the Monterey Bay Watchlist, which keeps track of endangered species, so that he can ensure that the University doesn’t source from at-risk fisheries.
SSP is a Sodexo-specific policy, and Compass will replace Sodexo as Northwestern’s food provider starting next year. But Studtmann isn’t worried about Compass having a plan to follow the same initiatives. Groups like NU Real Food pressure the University to keep a watchful eye on sourcing, ensuring that Northwestern will continue to try to mitigate its negative impact.
Do all these policies actually help to combat overfishing? For Studtmann, there is a marginal impact – the real change has to come from our perspective on food. Seafood is in danger because there is a lack of variety in what’s on our plates – we all want salmon and shrimp, which leads to overfishing. For true sustainability, we have to reverse the process of designing meal plans first and gathering ingredients second, according to Studtmann. Recipes should be inspired by the food that’s available and most environmentally-friendly.
“Sustainability is being adventurous with what your dining tastes are,” Studtmann says.