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Sustainability gains momentum

SHAPE July 2015

Chefs, restaurant operators embrace a wide range of practices to help protect the environment.

Once the focus of only a handful of ardent restaurateurs and suppliers, the sustainability movement today encompasses a diverse range of issues that impact a multitude of operators within the foodservice industry.

Over the past several decades, sustainability has emerged as a wide-ranging concern within the restaurant community, which has embraced such issues as energy and water usage, food waste, composting, local sourcing, responsible land and sea stewardship, and nutrition and menu transparency.

While sustainability certainly can mean different things to different individuals and groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency characterizes it as being “based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

The American consumer also is embracing the idea of sustainability — and increasingly translating that idea into action. According to the National Restaurant Association's 2014 Food and Menu Trends Survey, 62 percent of consumers say they are likely to choose a restaurant based on its eco-friendly practices, compared with 58 percent who reported the same a year earlier. In addition, the NRA found that 60 percent of consumers say they are more inclined to choose a restaurant offering menu items that were grown or raised in an organic or environmentally friendly way — an increase from 55 percent in the previous year.

Meanwhile, chefs and foodservice operators are listening to consumer concerns. The NRA's What's Hot 2015 Culinary Forecast finds that sustainability issues dominate the industry's Top 10 food trends. According to the NRA's annual poll of nearly 1,300 chefs, locally sourced meats and seafood rank No. 1, followed by locally grown produce at No. 2, environmental sustainability, No. 3, healthful kids' meals, No. 4, natural ingredients/minimally processed food, No. 5, hyper-local sourcing, No. 7, sustainable seafood, No. 8, food waste reduction/management, No. 9, and farm/estate branded items, No. 10.

Industry experts encourage chefs and operators to adopt sustainable practices for several significant reasons. Michael Oshman, founder and chief executive of the Green Restaurant Association, says, “Basically, if you do this you'll save money, attract customers, make employees happy and position yourself as a company that's doing the right thing in the community,” Oshman says. “It's just win-win-win across the board.”

But as an increasing number of restaurants find the sustainability topic to be a compelling one, the industry as a whole is still in the early stages of adoption, says Laura Abshire, the NRA's director of sustainability policy and government affairs. “We're still in the educational process.”  

To be sure, some elements of the sustainability movement have gained more traction than others. For example, many chefs and restaurateurs have been extremely conscientious about not menuing overfished species of seafood since back in the 1980s. Darryl Mosher, assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., also points out, organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and Marine Stewardship Council “are fairly mature in terms of assessing sustainability.”

Oshman notes that such organizations continue to help restaurants make more informed decisions when developing their menus. “People ask questions like, 'Where was a particular fish caught?' or 'How was it caught?' Transparency is the buzz word.”

With more Americans voicing interest in the provenance of the food items they're consuming, transparency also has emerged as a buzzword when it comes to buying produce and proteins from local farmers and ranchers, he continues. Many consumers tend to equate food purchased from local farms as being more eco-friendly, supportive of the local economy and fresher — often because they believe the products spend less time in transit.

“The chef can communicate with the grower and can have something on the menu that night that was in the ground that morning,” says the CIA's Mosher, who himself owned a farm in the Mid-Hudson River Valley near the culinary school. In addition, he says, “It clearly meets the needs of the community on a local level.” In what has emerged as a popular farm-restaurant event, some chefs even have begun partnering with local growers to host al fresco dinners in the fields where some of the ingredients for the meal have been grown.

However, some observers maintain that simply promoting ingredients on the menu as being local is too vague and not actually transparent at all. “[Local is] a subjective claim; the term is used differently by different people,” Oshman says. “Sometimes only a small percentage of food is coming directly from the farm to the table. Restaurants need to be more specific. They should say things like, '40 percent of our food comes from within a 100-mile radius.'”

While some sustainable practices are well-entrenched in the foodservice industry, others are just gaining traction. Mosher notes that more than 30 percent of food is wasted in the United States, and that restaurateurs must learn to manage waste more efficiently. “You want to use the things you buy,” he says. “You also want to save resources.”

With some jurisdictions like California banning the dumping of restaurant food waste in landfills, operators increasingly must explore environmentally sound alternatives. The NRA, which established its Conserve program to help operators deal with the many sustainability issues, recommends practices like composting, recycling and donating items to food kitchens or the economically disadvantaged. “We need to change the way people in the U.S. think,” Abshire says. “We can't afford to just throw food away. We must implement a cultural shift.”

Technology in the form of cutting-edge equipment also can help operators pursue a program of sustainability. “The technology is better … and is helping the green business movement,” Oshman says. “It's important to get the right dishwasher or refrigerator or heat-capture system hood. New LED lighting is phenomenal, too. Designers and architects are making it easier to have a super-efficient kitchen that has a much lower impact on the environment.”

As a business, he says, “You must always be looking at what's next. And [sustainability] will be next for a long time until we solve the issue.” 


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