Menus of Change Meets Climate Action: 10 Big Ideas from the Climate-Friendly Cuisine Summit

Thu, September 20, 2018

Last week, leaders from around the globe descended on San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit, which aimed to mobilize accelerated climate action plans in order to meet the emissions targets laid out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In conjunction with the summit, NGOs, think tanks, corporate partners, chefs, and mayors from cities around the world convened affiliate events and dinners on topics such as food waste and the role of menu strategies to reach global reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions. This blog post shares 10 big ideas that came out of one such event, Acterra’s Climate-Friendly Cuisine Summit. Held at LinkedIn headquarters and attended by 150 food leaders, Menus of Change and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative were featured topics on the program. These 10 ideas stand to affect your operation’s ability to remain financially sustainable while playing a key role in mitigating the foodservice industry’s sizable contribution to a warming planet.

Ideas Worth Implementing

#1: A new way of thinking about sustainability in restaurant and foodservice contexts: “good food, served thoughtfully and delivered kindly.” That’s from the green cuisine pioneer Traci Des Jardins, chef and restaurateur, who delivered the keynote address. As part of the “good food” and “served thoughtfully” pieces of this ethos, she urged operators to avoid absolutes in the effort to help customers reduce their climate impacts as eaters, such as by nudging customers to reduce the number of times a week they eat meat and to eat higher quality meat when they do eat it, rather than pressuring them into the all-or-nothing mindset of the V-word that can feel unattainable to some. As part of the “delivered kindly” piece, when asking yourself whether labor and social welfare issues for your employees should be part of your company’s definition of sustainability or not, she noted that, fundamentally, cooking is about sustaining people, so by her account it’s only logical to sustain her staff by ensuring they have livable wages and can take a sick day if needed. 

#2: Don’t forget refrigeration. Though emitted in lower quantities, fluorinated gases are critically important because they are 1,000 times as strong as carbon in contributing to global warming. Most commonly found in refrigerators and air conditioners, they are the fastest growing greenhouse gases. That was according to David Burch, principal environmental planner of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. For other types of greenhouse gases, “we’ve let the genie out of the bottle and can’t put it back in.” Meaning that by contrast, since fluorinated gases are now rising in use, think about those future decisions you can still affect. For example, if you’re designing a new kitchen or building, you have an opportunity to minimize the amount emitted by looking closely at the refrigeration and AC units in your facilities.

#3: Compromised nutritional value of crops: an overlooked consequence of climate change. Though this issue has received less attention, growing food in air with high carbon dioxide levels can reduce the protein, minerals, and vitamins in the crops. This poses a serious threat, especially because, as Burch noted, it’s affecting not specialty foods but staple crops like rice, wheat, and soybeans.

#4: If Farm to Table 1.0 was about sourcing form local and regional farms, let’s have Farm to Table 2.0 be about sourcing from farms who build soil health. This came from Anthony Myint, chef and restaurateur, who delivered a similar message at the 6th Annual Menus of Change Leadership Summit in June. This time he elaborated by saying that soil organic matter can become a farmer’s GPA, which procurement officers and retail buyers can then evaluate as admissions officers would of a student’s grades.

#5: In order to motivate your customers to care about sustainability, it can help to simplify the message by using carbon as the one, simple unit of measurement. This can be helpful because while there are of course important issues that fall outside of this bucket, such as potent methane emissions, much of the issue with global warming can be summarized as trying to release less carbon into the atmosphere and trying to capture and store more carbon from the atmosphere through sequestration. “Reducing climate change is the goal. Carbon is the metric.” That too came from Myint, who urged operators to adopt his carbon-neutral dining program as part of his Zero Foodprint initiative. Bon Appétit Management Company (which earned Acterra’s 2016 Award for Sustainability) similarly has encouraged its diners to adopt a low-carbon diet, which has now evolved to encouraging them to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, to account for impacts such as packaging waste, which is a newer but extremely important issue to have now entered the consumer consciousness.

#5: Sometimes there can be a disconnect between what you as food providers know is most impactful for the environment versus what your customers may believe is most impactful; education can go a long way in navigating this disconnect. Whether customers are demanding compostable to-go ware in municipalities with no composting programs in place or suspecting that locally sourced automatically means lower carbon footprint, sometimes you must get ahead of the narrative to justify the rationale behind a given purchasing or operational decision. At R&DE Stanford Dining, for instance, they long recognized that transportation accounts for only 7 percent of GHG emissions by the food industry, so they source their grass-fed beef from Australia, which at first glance raised many eyebrows. But this gave them the opportunity to educate students on the (not always intuitive) factors that go into choosing a sustainable product and that the humanely-raised, grass-fed beef shipped to California was a better choice than conventional beef (as ships have the lowest emissions of any form of transportation).

#6: Less food wasted means less money wasted. While intuitively this makes sense, it was a point emphasized time and again, because the business case for sustainability is so critical, and in the case of food waste reduction, it’s so dramatic: a 14:1 return on investment, on average. In other words, for every dollar a food company invests in reducing food loss or waste, they save $14 in operating costs. These cost savings can free up revenue to purchase higher quality ingredients or more humanely raised animal products, hire more staff or more highly trained staff, or invest in new or better equipment.

#7: Of the top 20 solutions to climate change identified by Project Drawdown as part of its bestselling book Drawdown, a whopping eight relate to food. Food waste reduction is #3 (whereas composting, which is still helpful, is only #60), and shifting to plant-rich diets is #4. Clearly, foodservice has an enormous role to play in reversing global warming.

#8: When reducing food waste, don’t limit your focus to back-of-house solutions. This is a common tendency among foodservice operators and restaurateurs observed by Dana Gunders, principal of Next Course who as a researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council famously first identified that 40 percent of food gets wasted. She attributed this ill-advised pattern to operators’ natural inclination to see the back of the house as an area of much greater control. Instead, she noted, there is huge opportunity to affect front-of-house waste, which accounts for at least 60 percent of a restaurant or foodservice operation’s total food waste. You have more control there than you might realize, through two key elements of food experience design: portion size and amount of choice on the menu. Typically both are excessive. Both present opportunities to reduce, and in the process, to waste less food. There is much more to be done on both the consumption and production sides as far as food waste reduction, but don’t think that you can only affect the production side.

#9: When it comes to advancing those plant-rich diets (or what we call plant-forward diets), heed the Protein Flip. Not surprisingly, this big idea came from yours truly at Menus of Change, delivered by Sophie Egan, director of health and sustainability leadership and editorial director for The Culinary Institute of America’s Strategic Initiatives Group. Not only did attendees learn about such strategies as blended burgers, meat as a condiment or garnish, and moving nuts and legumes to the center of the plate, but every participant received a printed copy of The Protein Flip resource. (It was the only print material provided other than the meeting booklet.) And, with apologies to some of the speakers whose full attention may not have been received, attendees were glued to the document throughout much of the day. At the summit’s conclusions, among attendee commitments to plant-forward climate action, the top three were: reducing meat through blended burgers, adding at least two vegan options to menus, and replacing at least two meat-focused menu items with plant-forward items.

#10: Reimaging protein on menus is essential for reducing the environmental impacts of your operation, but don’t forget dairy. Katie Cantrell of Green Monday sure got everyone’s full attention when she presented the audience with this powerful statistic: You can save the same amount of water by skipping 1 gallon of milk or 27 showers.

Maybe you really love milk, but ultimately it’s a pretty clear choice. Why, she asked? Because, frankly, and as noted in the fine print: “Everyone would prefer that you shower.”

On that note, stay fresh and clean so you can instead reimagine dairy in a supporting role! (Or embrace any number of plant-based dairy alternatives flooding the market.)

And we hope you’ll join us for much more on the topics of climate change and food at the 7th Annual Menus of Change Leadership Summit. It takes place June 18-20, 2019, back at the CIA’s Hyde Park, NY campus. Register now.