How Justin Johnson is Transforming Institutional Food Service

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In recent years, we’ve noticed a shift in how people are viewing food. Restaurants are creating dishes based on local, seasonal produce and using more sustainable practices. Consumers are demanding to know more about where their food comes from, and grocery stores are stocking up on organic products. But what about places like hospitals, schools and senior living homes, where the food served is known to be less than ideal when it comes to taste, quality and nutrition? Justin Johnson, founder and CEO of Sustainable Kitchens, is working to create a new normal in institutional food service.

Justin Johnson is the founder and CEO of Sustainable Kitchens

Johnson studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He has 20 years of experience in food service and is now based in Milwaukee, WI. The idea for Sustainable Kitchens was first inspired by Johnson’s work at the Watertown Regional Medical Center in Watertown, WI. While there, he transformed the hospital’s food service operation into one that uses real food. An 11,000 ft² farm was installed on-site, producing 80 crop varieties that are all used for meals. Everything served from the kitchen is made from scratch, down to condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise. These changes transformed the hospital into a farm-to-table dining destination for customers in the area, not just employees or hospital visitors.

Sustainable Kitchens has worked with schools to revamp its lunch programs to include healthy recipes.

Sustainable Kitchens works with clients on all aspects of food service, from recipe development and menu design to operational procedures and marketing campaigns. What sets the company apart is the amount of time they dedicate to the operation itself to learn processes and work on things like menu research and development. While Sustainable Kitchens works to help institutional kitchens be more sustainable and serve healthier food, it also has the goal to not increase food and labor costs in the process. Johnson recognizes that making an initiative more expensive won’t create lasting change, so he works with clients to understand their budgets, then increase efficiency within those guidelines.

A look into Sustainable Kitchens’ school initiatives

When working with clients, Johnson says he sees the most success when the leadership believes in a mission to make its food service operations better and healthier. One place where he has seen the impact of Sustainable Kitchens’ work is in schools; seeing how well the recipes were received by school kitchens, all while getting positive reactions from students and maintaining costs, has been especially meaningful.

Sustainable Kitchens’ clients are primarily based in the Midwest, and its business is growing. Johnson believes that his work is less about bridging a gap and more about making the system we know obsolete. Here at Change Food, we applaud the work of Sustainable Kitchens and know it won’t be long until Johnson’s influence reaches our local institutions!

To learn more about Sustainable Kitchens, click here.

Justin Johnson was a speaker at 2016’s Change Food Fest. Watch his talk here:


Priya Barua works in food tech and lives in New York City. She believes all communities should have access to healthy, real food and is passionate about Change Food’s mission. Feel free to reach out to her at to chat all things food, travel and fitness.

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