By Stett Holbrook
Shifting gears toward a more sustainable, enlightened food service is perceived as costly (to restaurants, not the environment), but data show that restaurants moving toward more environmentally sound business practices reap financial rewards. According to the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit organization that certifies restaurants that adopt environmentally sound business practices, 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as environmentally concerned. A dedicated sector of these 80 percent are driving a 20 percent annual growth in the $11 billion organic food industry, in part by seeking out green restaurants. Why not get a piece of that?
Here is a short list of what restaurants can do to clean up their environmental footprint. The list focuses on things that are visible to the customer, i.e. food choices and packaging. Of course, energy-efficient appliances and use of nontoxic chemicals is commendable as well, but they're harder to evaluate since they're not visible to the average diner.
Use compostable and / or recyclable plates For years restaurants had few options other than styrofoam and plastic plates and utensils, but that's changed. There are scores of companies (some local, like Worldcentric.org) that make functional to-go and in-house plates and utensils that don't sit in landfills for a thousand years.
Better yet, give a discount if people bring own stuff One of my New Year's resolutions is to bring my own containers to pack up my leftovers. If restaurants encouraged customers to do the same with a small discount, they could save on the cost of their own packaging because they'd use less.
Don't serve imperiled species This seems kind of obvious, right? Since domesticated animals aren't imperiled (at last not with extinction), we're mainly talking about seafood. Bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, grouper, Atlantic swordfish and too many other species need to remain in the ocean, not on your plate. Consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium's SeafoodWatch.org for guidelines. They even have an iPhone app.
No factory-farmed meat This is a huge one. Commodity meat produced in cruel, environmentally damaging conditions is the norm. A restaurant that really wants to show its commitment to doing the right thing, should have eliminating industrially raised meat at the top of the list.
How about serving less meat? While estimates vary, the production and distribution of industrial meat contribute between 18 and 51 percent of climate-warming gasses. We need to eat less of it.
Serve seasonal and local produce Produce in season tastes better, costs less, supports local growers and doesn't need to be air-freighted from Chile. Does anyone really like winter tomatoes anyway?
Humanely raised food Just as organic produce is certified as such, so too is there third-party certification for humanely raised food. CertifiedHumane.org is one of the industry's leaders.
Serve organic food While not all organically raised food is equal, and some food that isn't certified organic but is grown without chemical is just as good, seeking out certified organic products is a good place to start and tell customers you care about food quality and the health of the planet.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.